Growing up in Vermont, my mom always made the same thing for St. Patrick’s Day—corned beef with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes, and a loaf of Irish soda bread on the side. The bread was crumbly and rich, slightly sweet, and delicious spread with butter. Since she only made it once a year, it took on a special significance in my mind’s catalogue of childhood treats.
I was surprised when I realized that what I had been calling Irish soda bread all those years is actually far from traditional. As a household staple eaten in Ireland, soda bread was simple affair, made without butter or sugar, common additions in modern versions. As the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread says on their website:
All recipes for traditional soda bread contain flour, baking soda, sour milk (buttermilk) and salt. That’s it!!!
This was a daily bread that didn’t keep long and had to be baked every few days. It was not a festive “cake” and did not contain whisky, candied fruit, caraway seeds, raisins (add raisins and it becomes “spotted dog” not to be confused with the pudding made with suet of the same name), or any other ingredient.
Writing for Smithsonian.com, Abigail Tucker describes a similar shift in soda bread perception. Her Irish-born great-grandmother was famous for her white, crumbly loaves of raisin-studded bread. Yet, when Tucker went to Ireland to visit her ancestral home, the soda bread she ate was quite different. “[T]he soda bread served in her native village and elsewhere bore little resemblance to our family’s festive specialty,” she writes. “The standard Irish version is brown and coarse, with nary a raisin or caraway seed in site.”
Tucker says that she now enjoys both kinds, her grandmother’s celebratory loaf, and the plainer everyday version, preferably slathered with butter and marmalade. But she points out that there’s a common thread between the loaves—the crumbly texture that comes from leavening flour with baking soda rather than yeast.
Where did the butter and sugar come from? The Soda Bread Society suggests that Irish soda bread was conflated with a soda cake recipe like one that was published in The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph in 1824: “Dissolve half a pound of sugar in a pint of milk; add a teaspoon of soda, pour it on two pounds of flour—melt half a pound of butter. Knead all together until light. Pour it in shallow molds and bake it quickly in a quick oven.”
As a long-time baker, my memory of my mother’s bread suggested that it more closely resembled The Virginia Housewife version, sweet, crumbly, and butter-rich. So I went to the source and asked my mom how she made it. She text-messaged me photos of a yellowed newspaper clipping that is close to 40 years old. I made it and there it was, the texture, the sweetness. The bread I remembered.
Despite its craggy exterior, this is no peasant loaf. As well as the butter and sugar, it contains an egg. It’s addictively delicious, and properly celebratory. I tweaked the recipe slightly, consulting The Joy of Cooking along the way, to make it even richer, more like a giant scone, and to make a smaller loaf that could be eaten for breakfast or with soup.
I also tried it with Guinness in place of the buttermilk. It rose beautifully and the color was lovely, but it just didn’t taste the way I wanted it to. The depth of the stout was lost in the baking, and only the beery bitterness came through in the bread. Some things, it turns out, shouldn’t be changed.
This makes a medium-sized loaf that four hungry people could easily devour. You could use raisins, dried cranberries or whatever else strikes your fancy instead of the dates and ginger, or just leave them out. This doubles nicely for a crowd: Just make two loaves, or, if you make one big one, increase the cooking time to 50 minutes to an hour.
2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
A good pinch of salt
6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 cup chopped dates (optional)
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystalized ginger (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350° F (175° C). Line a baking tray with parchment or a baking mat.
If using the dates and ginger, chop them now and combine in a small bowl with a light dusting of flour to help keep the sticky pieces separate.
Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and use fingers or a pastry blender to rub into the dry mixture until no chunks remain and you have a uniform texture. (This can also be an also be done in short pulses with a food processor.) Add the dates ginger and mix to distribute evenly.
In a separate bowl, whisk the buttermilk and egg together. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients with a spatula or wooden spoon. The mixture will be heavy and sticky. Dust your hands with flour and form into a rough ball and place it on the prepared baking tray. Slice an “X” on the top.
Bake for 45 minutes. The top should be golden brown, craggy, and firm. Cool for 10 minutes before cutting. Serve with butter, marmalade, or whatever else seems delicious.