Sunday, March 17, 2019

Irish Soda Bread

Whole wheat soda bread.  Photo taken by Heather "Moria"'
Found on Wikimedia Commons.
My husband has often remarked that certain foods that have become beloved of foodies started out as everyday foods, cheap enough to make for the poorest of families.  

A great example of this phenomenon is Irish soda bread.  If you look on the Internet, you will find great numbers of soda bread recipes.  Some have caraway seeds.  Others don't.  Many have raisins or currants, or added sugar, or butter. There are even a few that can be made in a slow cooker.

If the soda bread of your dreams has any of these extras, it is inauthentic, according to the website of The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread ("the Society"). This organization, started by Irish immigrant Ed O'Dwyer, attempts to set the record straight about the real Irish soda bread.

The real Irish soda bread, as befits a food affordable even by the poor, had only four ingredients:  baking soda, wheat flour, buttermilk, and salt.  Any other additions turn it into a fancy dish for respected company.  Irish soda bread with raisins or currants and sugar is more like a tea cake, according to Mr. O'Dwyer.

On the other hand, the baking soda is essential; it's what makes this quick bread rise.  When sodium bicarbonate (the chemical name for baking soda) reacts with an acid, it releases carbon dioxide which causes the bread to rise.  Buttermilk, which is acidic, performs this function for Irish soda bread.

The Society's website states that the earliest reference they have found is from the Farmer's Magazine (London), Vol. 5, page 328, November 1836.  The Farmer's Magazine article cited an unnamed correspondent of the Newry Telegraph, a newspaper in County Down, Ireland, as giving the following recipe for it.
He says, "put a pound and a half of good wheaten meal into a large bowl, mix with it two teaspoonfuls of finely-powdered salt, then take a large teaspoonful of super-carbonate of soda, dissolve it in a half a teacupful of cold water, and add it to the meal; rub up all intimately together, then pour into the bowl as much very sour buttermilk as will make the whole into soft dough (it should be as soft as could possibly be handled, and the softer the better,) form it into a cake of about an inch thickness, and put into a flat Dutch oven or frying pan, with some metallic cover, such as an oven-lid or griddle, apply a moderate heat underneath for twenty minutes, then lay some clear live coals upon the lid, and keep it so for half an hour longer (the under heat being allowed to fall off gradually for the last fifteen minutes,) taking off the cover occasionally to see that it does not burn.
The Food Timeline, in turn, points to recipes for soda bread from roughly the same period, including one from 1829 that includes raisins, currants, sugar, sweet almonds, and candied orange peel.  That recipe, however, was clearly intended for a festive occasion, as Mr. O'Dwyer says, since the recipe's source identifies it as "the holiday cake of Munster."

My personal acquaintance with soda bread came from that palace of conspicuous consumption, America's favorite supermarket, Wegmans.  Wegmans' version of soda bread contains raisins and a bit of sugar, and adds barley flour and rye flour as well as palm oil (substitute for butter?) and several milk products, possibly meant to take the place of the buttermilk.  I like this bread so much that I'm grateful that they only sell it around St. Patrick's Day, or I'd eat it to excess far too often.  But now that I know how inauthentic Wegmans version is, I'm tempted to use my slow cooker to try out a more authentic recipe, just to see how well I like it.  Or maybe I should try making it in a skillet, which is is more traditional (as the Newry Telegraph noted).

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