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Food & Wine

Irish soda bread: Chasing memories, crumb by crumb

Photo By: courtesy of Avoca
Photo Courtesy Of Avoca Through time and migrations, Irish soda bread has diversified. Pale or dark, sweet or savory, the loaves pair with any meal and can stand alone at tea time.

Family recipes twist and turn, starting in one place – or one country – and changing through generations and migrations. Come March 17, Americans will be baking Irish soda breads born in the old country but transformed into something new.

I grew up in Seattle eating a delicate, crumbly soda bread studded with raisins – others in this country use currants or caraway seeds, sometimes a dose of extra sugar. These variations transform a bread that was originally deeply simple, economical food.

Long before commercially available buttermilk entered the mix, sour milk that otherwise would have gone to waste served as a key component of soda bread and scones. The soured milk reacts with baking soda to release tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide, fluffing up bread without any yeast at all. Variations using whole-wheat flour, known as brown bread or wheaten bread, add darker color and a richer flavor, sometimes augmented with treacle (akin to molasses).

A sweet, economical treat

On a quest to taste pre-American soda bread, I headed to the Avoca Foodhall in Dublin, Ireland. Avoca started as an 18th-century wool mill in County Wicklow and in recent decades transformed into a network of shops offering knits and housewares. A table of tea and cakes for shoppers grew into Avoca’s foodhall, which lured me in with the promise of soda-raised breads, served up ready for a picnic with butter and little takeaway pots of jam.

Expecting the pale rounds of my childhood, I quickly learned that hearty brown loaves are just as common on Irish tables. Leylie Heyes, executive head chef at Avoca, said soda bread sweetened with sugar would have been considered a treat saved for special occasions in Irish families that couldn’t afford making cakes enriched with eggs and butter.

But a hint of sweetness doesn’t mean the bread only comes at dessert time. Avoca’s brown bread includes the addition of bran and wheat germ, and Heyes serves it with Irish farmhouse cheeses and chutneys. It also pairs well with soups, and Heyes suggests a luncheon of the brown bread, smoked salmon and rocket (baby arugula).

“Peppery rocket helps cut the richness of the smoked salmon,” Heyes wrote in an email to the Town Crier.

After hearing stories of my friend Stephen peddling loaves of home-baked soda bread in his Dublin neighborhood of Monkstown, I consulted his mother, Susie Kennelly, for bread-making lore.

“I use a mixture of 3/4 brown to 1/4 white flour,” she said, and advised home bakers to seek out a minimally processed wholewheat flour, flecked with grains. Even if the flour comes pre-sieved, sieving yourself adds air to the mix.

Experienced bakers use floury hands to manually shape the loaf into rounds, but baking in a cake tin is an easy place to start, she noted.

“The mix should be of dropping consistency – if it’s too dry, it’ll come out hard. Wet is slightly better, as long as it cooks!”

Kennelly bakes up loaves in her AGA cooker, a heavy iron type of oven – originally coal-burning – that “cooks the bread from the outside in.”

“Bread is not something you serve as such, it’s just there,” Kennelly told me. “My mum was a great cook, and the four sisters have carried that on. Good wholesome food always.”

Soda bread has a practical appeal – it’s easier to make than yeast bread – but Kennelly says the bread’s “freshness and goodness” has a sentimental effect that also keeps her baking.

“The smell of fresh brown bread sells houses here in Ireland,” she joked.

The Avoca Café Cookbook’s bread recipes measure many of the ingredients by weight, a style of baking that can allow for greater precision but requires use of a food scale.

But given experience, precision can fall by the wayside. After growing up watching her mother bake, Kennelly worked out a recipe from scratch, noting that she never measures anything but that one quickly gets a feel for it.

When I consulted my own mother as to her recipe from my childhood, she first bluffed and then admitted: the bread may have come from a shop! But as an offering to future generations of American bakers in our family, she offered up her coworker Judy’s acclaimed version, which appears to return to its Irish roots – no raisins to be seen.

Avoca Brown Bread

• 200 grams (1 1/2 cups) white flour

• 300 grams (2 1/4 cups) whole-wheat flour

• 3 tablespoons bran

• 2 tablespoons wheat germ

• 2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

• 1 level teaspoon salt

• 1 dessert spoon (two teaspoons) treacle, or substitute molasses

• 2-3 cups milk

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. Add treacle and stir in enough milk to create moist but not sloppy mixture. Place in well-oiled 2-pound loaf tin and bake for 20 minutes or until risen. Reduce heat to 325 F and bake for 1 hour.

Run knife around tin to ease bread out. If it sounds hollow when tapped, it’s cooked. If not, return to oven for 10-15 minutes. No need to put bread back in tin – turn it upside down and place directly on oven rack.

Judy’s Soda Bread

• 1 cup white flour

• 2 cups whole-wheat flour

• Large handful rolled oats

• Small handful toasted wheat germ

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 1 teaspoon baking powder

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 2 tablespoons butter

• 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, with extra as needed

Mix dry ingredients, rub in butter.

Add 1 1/2 cups buttermilk or more, as needed, to incorporate all bits.

Turn out onto floured surface and roll into ball – do not knead.

Plop into buttered dish, score an X on top of loaf with back of knife.

Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes. Loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Best with gobs of butter. Delicious toasted the next day.

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