“Lovely soft weather.” That’s how the two sisters described a gray, misty day in Queens at their Irish deli. Years ago, we made our first home in a neighborhood where Bernadette Devlin was coming to speak, and the Troubles raged in Ireland, and Donavan’s Pub—where we often ended up for a burger and a beer—was always alive with laughs and drinks at any hour. This very Irish neighborhood was, naturally, soaked in Irish culture. And we fell in love with all of it—so much so that a lot of those traditions remain in our family today (though it took several years to have a real red-headed reason to celebrate them in the form of Ray). So when Lou opened her store in that same neighborhood, Irish soda bread and Van Morrison were staples, naturally. Especially in March.
And they still are. Though of course there isn’t a month in any year that doesn’t benefit from some Van Morrison.
These days, we still watch the springtime roll in with friends and play Caravan and bake soda bread—only we’re leaning around our kitchen’s counter, blasting our home stereo, and watching single loaves brown in our oven.
Irish soda bread not only sounds a little magical, like it came from an Irish fairytale, but feels it, too, simply by virtue of only making it this time of year. Though when it comes down to it, that seems pretty silly considering how delightful and simple it really is.
Now that we mention it, we absolutely can’t think why we make ourselves wait all year for soda bread. After all, it’s one of our very favorite breads.
We’ve all had versions that are dry or too crumbly or tasteless or more like a rock than a loaf, but Lou’s version has none of that. It’s simple, comforting, and faintly sweet that’s just hoping you’ve got a nice jar of jam waiting in your pantry. Add some good strong tea and you’ve got yourself one comforting and satisfying breakfast or anytime-snack.
But don’t just relegate soda bread to those times of day. We also serve it up alongside soup or stew—pretty much anywhere you might otherwise find cornbread. It’s a good little surprise and makes for a seriously hearty late winter/early spring meal.
We should also mention that soda bread, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes very nicely with a little Irish whiskey (or whiskey-ed-up tea). After all, what’s a whiskey without a little snack on the side? (Answer: lonely.)
So give our recipe a try, and let us know what you think! And in the meantime, get out the Jameson, put on Irish Heartbeat, pick up some green carnations (a wonky and endearing tradition in our house—Frank never let a St. Patrick’s Day go by without one for everyone), and settle in for a few more weeks of soft weather before the sunshine finds us for good (or… at least until next winter).
We’ll leave you with…
And some Irish wisdom: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” ―Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance
* * * *
Irish Soda Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Notes: This is a shaggy, raggy dough. Your hands will get gooey but handle the dough as little as possible. If you knead you will end up with a tough soda bread. If you are serving this the next day be sure to wrap it air tight when it has cooled to room temperature.
– 3/4 cup oats
– 5 cups flour + perhaps a little more if needed
– 2 tsp baking soda
– 1 tsp salt
– 2 tbs cold, unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
– 3 tbs caraway seeds
– 2 cups raisins, plumped in hot water for a few minutes and drained well
– 2 cups cultured buttermilk (+ 1/2 cup more, if needed + a bit more for brushing on top)
* Pre-heat your oven to 375°. Place the oats, flour, baking soda and salt into a large bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine.
* With a pastry blender, knives, or fingers cut in the butter until you’ve got pea-sized pieces throughout.
* Lightly mix in the raisins and caraway seeds.
* Make a well in the center and pour in 2 cups of the buttermilk.
* Mix together with a fork, gently but quickly.
* Add more buttermilk, if necessary, to produce a sticky but soft dough.
* Flour your hands. In the bowl or on a floured surface, mix everything together but don’t over-handle it or knead it too much. Gather up the raggedy mass into a flattened, round disk. Place on a baking sheet, and using a sharp knife, make a deep X—at least halfway down. This is important to help the bread bake through.
* Brush with buttermilk and bake for about one hour. Check after 45 minutes to see if it’s browning too much. If it is, tent it with a piece of foil, and continue baking for 15 minutes or until done. To check if it’s done: pick up the loaf with a kitchen towel or an oven mitt with the help of a spatula. Tap the bottom. It should sound hollow. If you hear a thud instead, tent with foil and bake 5 minutes more or as needed. You can also test doneness by inserting a knife into the bread—when it’s done, it should come out clean.
* When done, remove from the oven and place on a wire rack. Let rest for about 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, smothered in butter and jam!
© 2015 Lee and Lou Cook. All rights reserved