BY Claire Natale
As with many great creations, it is the drive of necessity that leads to them. Irish soda bread has become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States and is commonly thought of as a popular bread in Ireland. However, its history is somewhat unclear.
The Native Americans are credited with first combining a natural form of soda, pearl ash created from the ashes of wood to leaven bread without yeast. In 1824, Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” includes a recipe for soda cake with baking soda as a leavening agent. This process became popular.
Historically, Irish flour did not have a high gluten content, which is needed to rise when using yeast. Baking soda, when combined with an acid, creates a reaction that helps “soft” wheat to rise.
Financial hardships and inexpensive items led to soda bread’s creation. These quick breads are made of “soft” wheat flour, baking soda, sour milk and salt and was even popular among Irish lower and working classes.
Additionally, fresh milk was consumed as a beverage. Sour milk, which was usually thrown away, is used to react with the baking soda. Today, buttermilk is substituted.
The shape and baking of traditional Irish soda bread are also layered in lore and tradition. Farming families, who did not have ovens, baked the bread in iron pots or on griddles. This resulted in the bread’s signature dense texture with a hard crust.
As time passed, the bread’s shape changed. Ireland’s northern regions divide the dough into four and create triangular shapes. It is then cooked on a flat griddle.
In the south, the dough is baked in a classic round loaf with a crosscut, which “lets the fairies out” and wards off evil.
Today, this classic recipe has evolved to include butter, eggs and flavorings from raisins, caraway seeds or orange zest.
Mediterra Bakehouse, a family-owned and -operated bread bakery, has peddled its version of Irish soda bread for more than a decade every March. Studded with golden raisins and caraway seeds then topped with Demerara sugar, Mediterra Bakehouse prides itself on its old-world techniques, making each loaf by hand. The staff uses the best ingredients, including the heritage grains the bakery farms and mills into flour.
Mediterra’s Irish soda bread can be found at a local farmers markets, Valley Whole Foods and AJ’s Fine Foods.
Irish Soda Bread
– 3-2/3 cup bread flour
– 3 teaspoons salt
– 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
– 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
– 13.8 ounces buttermilk
– 4 teaspoons caraway seeds
– 1 cup golden raisins
– 1 to 2 tablespoons Demerara sugar
Combine ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixers. Mix on low for 3 minutes. Increase speed to medium and mix for 3 more minutes. Reduce speed to low and mix for 2 final minutes.
Shape dough into two 20-ounce rounds. Place each on a cooking sheet, cover with a light cloth and let proof for 1 hour in a draft-free area.
Preheat over to 375 degrees. Cut a cross 3/4-inch deep on top of the dough. Sprinkle with Demerara sugar. Bake for 40 minutes on a baking sheet.