The Irish Soda Bread Controversy

Friday, March 18, 2011 @ 04:03 PM

Yes controversy.

I have been making Irish soda bread for years. My recipe comes from The Fanny Farmer Baking Cookbook. The prologue to the recipe even states that Traditional soda breads are NOT SWEET! They can accompany any meal.

My husband grew up in Ireland. He always told me that the recipe that I made, tasted just like Grandma’s. Though Grandma’s was cooked in cast iron in a peat oven. Mine was, and still is, baked in an 8″ cast iron skillet in my oven.

It irks me to no end when I go into a store during the St. Patrick’s Day season,  and see Irish soda bread all done up with raisins, or caraway seeds, and then covered in a hard sugar cookie glaze. This is the farthest thing from traditional Irish soda bread that you can get. When Americans decided that traditional Irish fruit bread was traditional classic soda bread, I do not know. It is made with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), therefore making it a soda bread or cake, but it is so far from classic soda bread that it is not funny.

Poor people in Ireland certainly did not have the sugar and raisins for daily bread. Why would you use sweet cakey bread with raisins in it to sop up your lamb stew anyway? But a nice moist, fresh piece of bread slathered with butter is perfect here. Left over bread was usually toasted and slathered with butter and preserves or put in the frying pan to sop up bacon grease and then toasted to perfection. Certain times of the year, you were lucky to get any fruit at all anyway. At Christmas time it was a very special present if you received an orange or other piece of fruit with your gifts.

Traditional Irish fruit bread has many names. Spotted Dog, Sweet Cake, Curnie Cake, Spotted Dick or Railway Cake depending on the area of Ireland that you came from. Given the sweetness of this item, it would be appropriate to sprinkle powdered sugar on top or maybe even a glaze of sugar. But this is not what you want to eat with your Shepherd’s Pie or your boiled corned beef, which by the way is another American tradition, not Irish. This is something you would eat for tea or after dinner as a dessert item.

I am going to include the recipe for both Classic Traditional soda bread, and Spotted Dog so that you may see the similarities, but the definite differences.

Classic Irish Soda Bread:

4 cups flour

1 1\2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking SODA

2 cups buttermilk (milk with tablespoon or 2 lemon juice…let it sit & curdle a minute before you add it to flour mixture)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Grease an 8″ cast iron skillet. In large bowl toss together dry ingredients. Add buttermilk…stir briskly with fork til dough forms together in a rough mass. Knead on a liberally floured surface for about 30 secs. Pat into a 8″ round about 1 1\2 thick (mine is always thicker than that) Slash a large 1\4″ deep cross across the top. Place in cast iron skillet & bake 45-50 mins. or until nicely browned and the cross has spread open. Transfer to a rack to cool, then wrap in a slightly damp tea towel and let it rest for 8 hours. Wrapping the baked, cooled bread in a damp towel helps it to settle and makes it easier to slice.

Spotted Dick:

4 cups  flour

2 tsp. sugar

1\2 tsp. salt

1\2 tsp. baking soda

1\2 cup raisins, sultanas, or currents

1 1\2 cup buttermilk or sour milk

1 egg (optional…you probably won’t need all the milk if you use the egg)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Sift the dry ingredients together. Add the fruit and mix well.

Making a well in the center, add the egg and\or milk. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead for a few seconds, just enough to tidy it up. Place in an 8″ cast iron skillet. Cut a 1\4″ deep cross in the top. Bake in the 450 degree oven for 15 mins. then turn down the temp. to 400 degrees F and cook for an additional 30 mins. or until cooked.

Serve freshly baked, cut into thick slices and spread with butter. Or you can cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar or put a sugar glaze on at this point.

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One Response to “The Irish Soda Bread Controversy”

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