Late-Night Baking: Irish Soda Bread

David Lebovitz’s recent post about Irish Soda Bread gave me reason to reflect on my own history with the food. I used to be — and still am — a soda bread fiend. This fiendishness was an accidental development. I didn’t grow up eating the bread, and it certainly wasn’t a sought-after starch in my neck of the woods (that neck being suburban Minnesota). I didn’t even know what it was until I bought this book — Time Life’s Foods of the World: The Cooking of the British Isles — at a garage sale, where I’d hoped instead to find stackable plastic bracelets and maybe a ceramic dog.

Time Life's "Cooking of the British Isles," the book that brought soda bread into my life.

The book set me back a mere $.75 — a way better deal than any of the tchotchkes available — and provided hours of browsing pleasure. At the time, I wasn’t a fan of big, bloody hunks of meat: the only recipes that interested me were those for baked things. Of those recipes, the only one I tried was soda bread. I’m not sure now how I settled on soda bread as my target project, but I suspect its relative ease was a key factor in my decision.

For three-odd months during my sixteenth year, soda bread reigned supreme. I baked loaves and loaves of it, foisting it on my family and facing their steady rebuffs. I ate it for breakfast, spread with lemon curd or slathered with a thick coat of butter, itself just darker than the bread. I brought foil-wrapped slices in my lunchbox. I loved it more than anything until one day, I moved on. This was through no fault of the bread’s, mind you. You know how fickle teen girls are.

I’d largely forgotten about soda bread until a few days ago, and then I was seized by the urge to bake a loaf. Never mind that it was late in the evening, that the bread’s baking time tops an hour and that I don’t have my copy of Cooking of the British Isles with me in San Francisco. I’d be damned if I let any of these things stop me! I searched online, found a decent-looking recipe*, and began.

Hook doesn't have a microwave and so when I need melted butter, I melt it in the old-school way. Here, then, is my obligatory "butter on the stove" photo.

I used Karin Christian’s recipe, posted on Allrecipes.com. It is as follows:

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan.
  2. Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and baking soda. Blend egg and buttermilk together, and add all at once to the flour mixture. Mix just until moistened. Stir in butter. Pour into prepared pan.
  3. Bake for 65 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the bread comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Wrap in foil for several hours, or overnight, for best flavor.

I made no modifications to the ingredients list, though I used a greased pizza pan instead of a loaf pan. (Note: Back in my soda bread glory days, I always formed the dough into a rough boule and baked it on this selfsame pizza pan. Also, I don’t have a loaf pan (shame!) and didn’t feel like buying one at this very juncture. I will, soon, though: promise.) As Lebovitz notes, this is the ultimate quickbread — prepwise, at least. Hook was astonished by the speed with which I mixed the dough, formed it, and popped it into my preheated oven. Then began the waiting game. I sipped a beer, watched an episode of “Bored to Death,” sipped more of the slowly-warming beer, watched an episode of “Eastbound and Down,” thought about opening another beer but decided against it. Though the dough is quick to mix, the bread has to bake for at least an hour and cool for a bit after that. I’m good at biding my time, but I couldn’t stop myself from tearing off a hunk of bread before it was cool.

The finished loaf. I've been eating the bread all week, with and without jam.

Compared to the soda bread of my youth, this loaf was less dense, more buttery, and with a more open crumb. The loaves I’d gotten used to were brick-thick, almost white, and heavy as a bowling ball; this one was more like a giant buttermilk biscuit, faintly golden and flaky, still heavy for its size. In short, I loved it. I cut myself another slice and packed up the rest. I wanted to have some left for breakfast, after all.

For now, I’ll use this recipe for all my soda bread needs (and those needs are many), but I’ve placed an Amazon order for Cooking of the British Isles. It would feel uneasy to abandon my keystone recipe for one that I happened upon online; I’d like to revisit the book that introduced me to this glorious bread, that brought about this craving in the first place. For now, I’ll content myself with the remainders of this loaf until the mailman delivers my Time Life goodness.

***

*Based on 573 reviews, the recipe received a rating of 4.5 out of five stars. That, and it was easier than some of the others I found.

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