The Glory of Irish Soda Bread (Even If It's Cake)

By Corby Kummer
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It's your duty to eat soda bread today. Even if it isn't really bread. But today's a holiday! Hunt down the real thing later.

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On March 17, all thoughts in Boston turn to Irish soda bread. Or, rather, Irish cake. Anyone who grew up or has spent time in Ireland grows testy at the confections that go by the name in this country—and in Boston, a city still defined by its Irish heritage, that testiness can get heated.

Real soda bread is just that—bread, made as a staple, never including luxury ingredients like eggs, sugar, raisins, caraway seeds, or, certainly, whiskey (recall that the Irish use the "e," Scots write "whisky"). It was for everyday use, and its distinctive soft, crumbly, dense texture results from the "soft" wheat that grows in the cool climate of Ireland, meaning that it doesn't have enough protein to form the gluten structure of yeast-raised breads. Hence the use of baking soda, originally potash, as a leavening agent. The advantage is that it's a quickbread, easily mixed and put right into the oven, no rising time necessary. The disadvantage is the relative density and heaviness relative to yeasted breads, and the crumbliness and low height that don't lend themselves to sandwiches.

For an example of that testiness, stop anyone with a brogue on his or her way to a parade today. Or consult The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, a site devoted only to soda bread, which gets right to testy definitions:

Would "French Bread" (15th century) still be "French Bread" if whiskey, raisins, or other random ingredients were added to the mix? Would Jewish Matzo (unleavened bread) used to remember the passage of the Israelites out of Egypt still be Matzo if we add raisins, butter, sugar, eggs, and even orange zest? So why is traditional "Irish Soda Bread" (19th century) turned into a dessert and labeled "Traditional Irish Soda Bread?"

It's understandable. There's no greater treat than a slice of warm Irish soda bread—you're allowed to eat it straight out of the oven, unlike yeast breads, which need at least 40 minutes and better an hour for the structure to set—with Irish butter, the best in the world. I also think Irish breads are among the best in the world, an opinion I've stated at length: the soft brown flour, most similar to what's sold in the US as whole-wheat pastry flour but softer still, and much nuttier and fresher in flavor, can redefine what you think of as the taste of wheat.

The problem is getting it. As I wrote when I went to a day-long seminar on Irish baking under the auspices of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, that low-protein flour may be a case of making a virtue of necessity in Ireland, but it's a virtue that's hard to find in this country. We have "stronger" flours, and are unaccustomed to the plainness of real soda bread. So all we want, or are used to, is versions with the un-echt, usually sweet additions (though, as with cornbread, jalapenos make their way into various "Irish" breads too). The guardians of echt particularly despair when it comes to judging: witness this from the preservation-society site, with the perhaps predictable headline "It happens every year around St. Patrick's Day," and this from our local radio station WBUR's nationally broadcast noontime show Here & Now, which invited staff members of Irish heritage to enter a soda bread bake-off, judged by their resident chef Kathy Gunst and Ed O'Dwyer, of the preservation society. Gunst, who described herself as a "nice Jewish girl," was delighted to agree with O'Dwyer as to which of the five entries in the blind tasting was best.

That bread, as the small-town ways of Boston would have it, was baked by a neighbor, the show's executive producer, Kathleen McKenna (no, she didn't tell me a thing in advance about the show or the bakeoff; when I emailed her the second the segment ended begging for leftovers, she tersely replied, "long gone"). Kathleen may have echt credentials, but she knows that the butter, milk, raisins, and eggs are artifacts of emigration:

This recipe came to me via my mother via her mother, Mary Harrington, from County Cork. Of course, I've imagined that she carried this recipe with her when she came over as a teenager. But now I know this recipe has been "Americanized."

I've spent the morning at two of our local bakeries trying their Irish soda breads, and they're of course what the preservation society would witheringly call "cake": the first, from Canto 6, did have the dreaded (though not by me) sugar crust and currants, but was otherwise relatively spare; the second, from the community nexus praised here the week of last St. Patrick's Day.)

UPDATE: I found two more: a round, leaning loaf baked in a cake pan at Blue Frog, improbably a third full-scale Jamaica Plain bakery, and a picture-perfect hand-formed round scored into quarters at Brookline's Clear Flour, whose owners, Abe Faber and Christy Timon, are active members of the Bread Bakers Guild. In fact, they had helped organize the program where I'd spent my day with Jimmy Griffin, the Irish baker, and so naturally Christy, who sees to pastry, absorbed all his lessons in soda bread. Thus the bakery was offering two versions: the usual one we find, with butter, currants, and sugar, marked "sweet"; and a darker, more rustic, flaked-out-strewn loaf called simply "soda bread." Blue Frog, too, honored the holiday by offering a version without raisins, though it did have sugar.

To my surprise, Blue Frog, whose owners have no Irish connection I know of, produced my favorite loaf: light-textured, with a clear and bright tang of buttermilk but balanced by a very judicious amount of sugar, a nutty golden yellow. Clear Flour, which makes the bread I must buy every day or at most two, produced a nutty, obviously whole-grain loaf that had the strong flavor of grain and even the suggestion of oat and buckwheat--suggestions I'll investigate when I next visit the owners. And now I'll have to go back and try the sweet version. O'Dwyer and all his preservation-society compatriots would feel their souls gladdened by both loaves.

I know from last year's hunt that Boston has more authentic versions, and they'll be for excursions later in the day. I've got Italy's 150th birthday to observe, after all (don't miss Piero Garau's thoughtful, informative post on Italy's recent history and the Unification itself, link again here). And might run into some Italians guardians of echt who will rail against the land-of-plenty excess that put those giant meatballs on top of spaghetti. But we can all celebrate excess—hey, it's a holiday! And in Boston, an official state one, called Evacuation Day but really timed so that everybody can go to a parade. I'll be going to every bakery along the route.


Image: roygbivibgyor/flickr

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/03/the-glory-of-irish-soda-bread-even-if-its-cake/72593/