Bread is unquestionably my favorite thing to make. I love the feeling of dough, as well as the transformations that the bread goes through between looking like a pile of flour to emerging from the oven a golden, crackly, heavy mound of warmth.
No one really taught me how to make bread, I learned through half a decade of trial and error. I jumped into bread-making initially to – surprise – save money.
Not like bread is expensive, but when you break it down, making your own bread costs literally less than a dollar. In some cases, less than half a dollar. It’s amazing how little goes into something that can feed your family for days or weeks.
Half of my family is extremely Irish. We come from an Irish Catholic background, straight out of West Meath, Ireland. (Hello to all the Irish “Cleary”s out there! We are probably related!) My grandmother, her birth name as far as I’m concerned was “Grammie,” was an excellent grandmother. More than that, she was a superior Irish grandmother.
Every St. Patrick’s Day, she was dressed to the shamrocks in green, including clover socks, a green cap, and flags of Ireland everywhere you looked. She never missed a single year! She had an entire wardrobe devoted to St. Patrick’s Day and came to the parties we’d throw each year armed to the teeth with Irish soda bread.
As a kid – I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why the crumbling texture was so desirable to my older cousins, and I didn’t understand why the crunchy, crispy outside was eaten immediately off each wedge. (Also, wedge?!) It took me 19 years before I finally had the right piece of Irish soda bread that made me fall wildly in love with the slightly sweet, soft-but-dense texture of this cake-bread hybrid.
I am saying “Irish Soda Bread” so many times because there are actually several different types of soda bread from all kinds of countries. Even Australia and Serbia have their own soda bread, which is drastically different from Irish soda bread! The Irish used soft wheat – the only wheat that would grow in the Irish climate. Soft wheat is usually used in cakes and more delicate baked goods.
I was going to post, in full glory, my grandmother’s recipe for Irish Soda Bread… but I think it’s time I took my own spin on it. I took her recipe and tweaked it to become my ideal Irish Soda Bread. It’s all about me, me, me!
Irish Soda Bread
4 c. unbleached flour (AP)
1/2 c. sugar
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 stick (½ cup) cold butter, cut into several pieces
1 c. dried currants
1 ½ c. buttermilk
1 T oil
Large mixing bowl
Smaller bowl or 16oz. liquid measuring cup
Wooden cutting board or marble slab
Cast iron skillet or regular baking sheet
Pastry cutter (or two butter knives)
1. Preheat your oven to 375°F. In a large mixing bowl, add the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix together until well blended.
2. Add the cold butter and cut in with pastry cutter or knives until the mixture is very crumble. It won’t hold together like pie dough, so don’t worry if it looks dry.
3. In your smaller bowl or cup, add the buttermilk, egg, and oil, then mixed them completely. Mix in the currants. (You can use raisins if you don’t like currants.)
4. My grandmother would suggest making a well in the middle of the pile of dry ingredients before pouring in the buttermilk mixture, but it’s okay if you can’t nail it. Mix it up until it’s all combined, then prepare your cutting board or slab. It’s okay if the dough doesn’t look like perfect bread dough.
5. Sprinkle some flour (about 3 tbsp) onto your board and then pour the dough out into it. Traditional Irish soda bread isn’t kneaded, but we like to knead ours exactly 12 times to make sure all of the dough comes together. Once you’re done kneading, pat the dough into a mound – slightly shorter on the edges than in the center.
6. Grease your cast iron skillet or baking sheet and gently plop your dough down. Grab your sharp knife and carefully – without sawing – “let the devil out” by cutting an X/+ into the top of the dough. This prevents it from cracking when it expands. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until top is nicely browned and the top is hard, sounding hollow when tapped.
You could use cake flour if you wanted to get Very Serious about the Irish-ness, but I used Bob’s Red Mill Unbleached White Flour. Always fluff it up before scooping or spooning into a measuring cup, then level off with, um, a clean drumstick?
If you’re one of the many in our generation that has never heard of or seen a pastry cutter – this is it. It’s basically a set of 5 dull knives meant to cut cold butter into tiny pieces and make sure it gets coated with flour. This is why using two knives works just as well, though it takes a little more time.
Currants are delicious little tiny dried fruits that can be found near the raisins in the grocery store. If you can’t find them, or they weird you out, using regular raisins is totally acceptable! Grammie would recommend half white raisins, and half currants. I used Sun-Maid Zante Currants, about $3.50 for 10 oz.
I really like mixing all the wet ingredients together first, it simplifies the process so much! I used olive oil as my oil because it’s what I had, but any basic oil will work!
Mix it all in at once, and don’t over-mix it! Once everything looks wet and like there are no big clumps of flour, stop! You’re going to further combine everything when you knead it.
12 times! 12! No more, no less. It’ll look like this once you’ve gotten it all together. See how imperfect? It’s totally fine! Thanks in advance for ignoring my hand tattoo that desperately needs another go-around.
Okay, scoring the top of the bread: use a very sharp knife, and in one, fluid motion (that you can repeat if you mess up, don’t worry), drag the knife across the top of the dough. Once you have a good cut, turn it 90 degrees and do the next one.
If you wanted a softer, less-crusty bread, you could rub some soft butter on the top of the dough before putting it in the oven.
Then, when it emerges after nearly an hour…
Golden brown and perfect. Pleeeeeeeeease let it cool before you cut into it! Otherwise, it’ll be doughy and sad inside. No one wants that! Enjoy with some butter (Kerrygold is a good European butter from the grocery store!) or honey or nothing at all.
So thank you, Grammie, for this amazing base recipe and for the years of dilligent soda-bread-feeding, as it has brought me to this point. This point of eating half a loaf of soda bread in a day, by myself, simply because it’s the middle of March.