Traditional Irish Soda Bread consists of flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk. That’s it.
The baking soda needs the acid of the buttermilk. But, over the years, baking powder replaced baking soda for many bakers, and the acid of the buttermilk was no longer required, although many still like it for the taste and texture.
The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread — no kidding, check it out at sodabread.info — tells us: “The earliest reference to using soda ash in baking bread seems to be credited to American Indians using it to leaven their bread.” And, “The oldest reference to a published Soda Bread recipe, County Down, Ireland, Nov. 1836.”
There are endless versions, including white and brown (whole-wheat and molasses), with added raisins, candied orange peel and caraway seeds. Brown bread was initially more popular due to the price of white flour, and it grew in popularity because of the sweetness of the molasses.
Some are cooked on a sheet pan or in an iron frying pan. In Ireland, in the 19th and early 20th century, bread was usually cooked in a “bastible,” a flat-bottomed, cast-iron pot with a lid and sometimes legs. It was suitable for an open turf (or what we Yanks call “peat”) fire, often suspended above the fire. Used to bake bread, it was also used to cook other food, such as meat and poultry.
My version, cooked in a cast-iron frying pan, is third-generation from Cahirciveen in County Kerry. My grandmother added eggs to the original recipe. My Aunt Nora loved butter. I added my own embellishment — Irish whiskey-soaked raisins and currants.
Here, then, is the result.
• Set oven at 375 degrees.
• Butter and flour a 10-inch frying pan.
• Soak the raisins and currants in the whiskey for an hour or so, or put in the microwave for 20 seconds until the fruit softens and plumps.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons melted sweet butter
1 large egg
1 cup of whole milk
2/3 cup raisins (mixed dark and golden)
1/3 cup currants
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1/4 cup Irish Whiskey
1. Sift together the first four ingredients.
2. Add melted butter to dry ingredients and mix until it resembles fine cornmeal.
3. Stir in beaten egg and milk (batter will be heavy).
4. Add the raisins and currants (whiskey and all) to batter and mix.
5. Sprinkle caraway seeds throughout batter.
Turn batter into prepared pan and cut a deep cross into it with a sharp knife. (Tradition holds that the cross is a blessing before baking, and an indentation with the tip of the knife in each quarter releases the fairies from cursing the bread.)
Check the oven in 30 minutes; turn oven down to 325, and bake 15-30 minutes more until evenly brown. Take out and let cool in the pan. Alternatively, it can be eaten warm slathered with cold, sweet butter.
• You can leave out the whiskey, but only if absolutely necessary.
• You can substitute 2% for whole milk, but not recommended.
• Freezes well; slice before freezing so you can take out a slice for toasting.