Exploring Authentic Irish Soda Bread
Some dishes are designed as a celebration—Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, became a national hero by defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Beef Wellington was created in his honor. On a more somber note, the Seder is a ritual meal recognizing the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.
There are other meals that allow us to revel in the foodstuffs and blessings of the moment—a day at the Farmers Market might result in a “let’s-use-what-we-found-today” minestrone soup. A weekend at the shore could invite a clambake.
But for some meals, there is no celebration, no revelry, no blessing—only sadness. Some foods are born of loss and hunger and a struggle to survive. Irish soda bread is one such food.
Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic, its 2,000 miles of rugged sea cliffs washed with abundant rainfall, affording it the sobriquet “Emerald Isle.” Some 15 percent of the island is covered in peat bogs, ancient lakes filled with a sponge-like mixture of sphagnum moss and mire. Subtract the cliffs, the crags, and the bogs; whatever land left suitable for farming was wrested from the mostly Catholic population.
With the death of William III in 1702 penal laws were introduced; Catholics could not vote, wed outside of their religion, or keep and bear arms. Protestant sons could inherit large estates, but Irish Catholics were forced to divide their properties among all male descendants, in time shrinking their holdings to nothing more than tiny plots of rock and dirt.Catholics made up roughly 70 percent of the population but owned only 5 percent of the land.
Food shortfalls were commonplace and worsened by famines in 1740 and again in 1744. The poorest of the poor were forced to eat grass for survival...until the introduction of the potato.
The potato is one of the earliest cultivated foods in South America, but it did not arrive in Europe (Spain, to be precise) until 1570. Initially, there was distrust of these tubers nicknamed "the devil's apples." But then French physician Antoine Parmentier studied the potato; he concluded that it had great nutritional value and thus, throughout Europe, the potato became the most important new food of the 19th century. Potatoes grew well in the climate of Ireland and, unlike grains, could easily be stored during the winter months.
With access to this new staple food, the Irish population began to grow, and grow rapidly. By 1840 the population exploded to more than 8 million, most of them poor. This growing population subsisted on a diet comprised mainly of potatoes and milk, a bland and boring diet, but nevertheless one which provided the basic nutrition needed to sustain life.
When the potato crop failed in the mid-1800’s, an estimated 1 million people starved and 2 million more left their homeland in search of survival.
At the same time, a new baking product was being developed and produced—baking soda. The soft wheat of Ireland (the only wheat that could endure the climate) had not been suitable for the baking of yeasted bread; it lacked the protein (gluten) that would support the leavening action of yeast. But baking soda could produce a bread that was substantial, filling, and (most importantly) could be prepared in the Irish kitchen where there typically were no ovens. A heavy pot hung over the fire or nestled in the embers, could produce a sturdy loaf for a hungry family. Irish Soda Bread was born.
The Basic Recipe
A true Irish soda bread does not contain butter, nor are there eggs, raisins, or sugar. There is flour, baking soda, buttermilk, and perhaps a bit of salt. For this recipe, I have made two subtle additions. I use a combination of baking soda and baking powder so that the resulting loaves will not be quite so heavy. The second ingredient that I added to the mix was cornstarch. The blending of cornstarch into our all-purpose flour results in a product that is more closely akin to the soft-wheat flour of our Irish ancestors.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (lightly spooned into the cup and leveled with the flat side of a knife)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
- Move oven rack to middle position.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Sift all dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in all of the buttermilk.
- Stir with a wooden spoon until a shaggy dough is formed.
- Turn out onto a lightly floured surface; knead for about 1 minute, until the dough comes together.
- Pat into a round loaf and place on ungreased baking sheet.
- With a very sharp knife, cut a cross shape on the top of the loaf.
- Bake about 40 minutes or until the loaf is golden brown.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool before slicing.
© 2018 Linda Lum