I’m posting this in March because, for me, soda bread is overwhelmingly Irish. I first came upon it when I was driving with my son between Dublin and Ballynahinch, and we stayed at a bed and breakfast midway between the two. After we had completed our trip around Ireland, we decided that the breakfast at the Lough Key House was the best (among fierce competition), and a lot of the reason it won the prize was because of the soda bread. I wrote to the owner (and cook), Frances McDonagh afterwards and she very generously gave me her recipe. My son and I both loved Ireland, but it does have its drawbacks. “Wonderful day” remarked Frances as we headed off stalwartly in the grey and the wet to walk around one of Ireland’s most beautiful lakes. Surprised, we indicated the drizzle. “Exactly” she replied, vindicated, “It’s not raining!”
In any case the whole concept of soda bread conjures up leprechauns for me – but Wikipedia tells me it crops up in Scotland… and somewhat bizarrely … Serbia.
Why don’t you need to knead? Because the acid buttermilk reacts with the alkaline bicarbonate of soda to produce carbon dioxide. This replaces the gas produced by the yeast in ordinary bread, and causes a sort of natural, slow-motion self-kneading within the bread.
Wholemeal soda bread goes well with ricotta and tomatoes for lunch… or with smoked salmon at Christmas, or in an Irish breakfast with scrambled eggs.
This is (more or less) how Frances makes it:
- 395g/2¾ cups/14 oz wholemeal flour
- 245g/1¾ cups/8½ oz plain flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 60g/2 oz/½ cup munchy seeds
- 25g/1 oz softened butter
- 450ml/1¾ cups buttermilk (or that amount of milk plus 2 tbsp lemon juice to make the buttermilk)
- heat the oven to a whopping 230ºC (use the top of the aga roasting oven)
- sift all the dry ingredients in a large bowl
- add the butter, and mix in with your fingers until it looks like breadcrumbs
- make a dip in the centre of the mix
- stir the buttermilk gently as the solids tend to settle, and pour into the centre of the bowl, leaving about ¼ cup (about four tbsp)
- stretch out your hand over the bowl like an arthritic witch or wizard, and start mixing the dry flour mixture around the outside onto the liquid in the middle.
- it should start to become soft, if it doesn’t add a bit more buttermilk, but DON’T let it become sticky
- once it’s formed into a ball of its own, move it onto a floured worksurface, and form it into a ball a bit more, then squash it down into a round shape
- put it on a greased baking tray, squish it down a bit more (to just under a couple of inches, about 4 cm), and cut a deep cross in it (this is supposed to ward off the devil – so well worth doing, but it also has a practical and useful result – it allows the heat to penetrate to the thickest part of the bread and thereby aids the auto-kneading process we’re so keen on)
- put it in the oven for 15 minutes
- turn the oven down to 200ºC (or for aga owners move the bread down to the bottom of the roasting oven) and cook for another 30 minutes.