St. Patrick’s Day is Saturday, and all over I hear people expressing unenthusiastic sentiments like, “Oh yeah, St. Patty’s. Guess I’ll have to make some soda bread.” Their tone of voice reveals a grit-your-teeth-and-do-it dread of a bread that is really quite good–if it’s made right. Turns out that’s a mighty big IF.
But soda bread doesn’t have to be hard enough to prop the car on while you change a tire. You just have to know the secret, which is this:
*Once you’ve added the buttermilk to the dry ingredients (including that all-important baking soda), you must get the dough into the hot oven as quickly as possible. If you dawdle, the leavening power of the buttermilk-and-baking soda combo will be spent, and the resulting loaf will be dense and hard. This means you must have everything ready up front, and, most importantly, the oven must be preheated to the correct temperature before the loaf goes into it. If you are organized and work quickly, the resulting soda bread will be light and airy and something you’ll want to make and enjoy year-round.
Irish Soda Bread
Yield: 1 loaf
This recipe is adapted from one by Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland.
3 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
a scant 1/2 cup of rolled oats (the real stuff, not those little packets of instant breakfast goo)
about 2 1/2 cups buttermilk–reserve about an ounce to add only if the dough is too dry
butter to coat the baking sheet
Before you touch those ingredients, do the following three things first:
- Preheat your oven to 425ºF and position the rack in the middle.
- Butter a sheet pan and set it aside.
- Lightly dust a cutting board or other smooth, clean work surface with a bit of flour and set it aside.
Now it’s time to get down to business…
Sift the two flours, salt and baking soda into a large bowl, mix them well and then stir in the oats.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the buttermilk and stir to combine (add a tablespoon or two more buttermilk if it’s too dry or a bit more flour if it’s too wet).
As quickly as possible, turn the mixture out onto a lightly-floured work surface and pat it into a round of about 8 or 9 inches in diameter–this isn’t yeast bread, so don’t bother kneading it; just be sure the ingredients are all combined.
Take a sharp knife and cut an X deeply into the dough all the way across in each direction, cutting the dough almost completely into quarters. (Depending on which bit of folklore you believe, cutting the X in the dough lets out either the fairies or the evil spirits. If you see either, please e-mail me!)
Place the round of dough on the buttered sheet pan and bake it in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 350ºF and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when you rap the bottom of the loaf with your knuckles.
Move it to a rack immediately and let it cool there, so moisture doesn’t condense on the bottom.
Even if you don’t make the traditional bacon and cabbage or corned beef, this bread is fantastic with a bowl of hearty soup, a glass of Guinness and a good semi-firm cheese, or with a simple smear of butter (not the ugly M-word!) or jam.