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Bread of life

Tasting

SODALICIOUS  Uniquely Irish, soda bread has been a welcome feature of our diets for centuries.

Tasting

Redmond Cabot

You’d think being immersed in making food every day would mean that you’d never have days when you don’t know what to write about. Wrong! I suspect even the gardener may occasionally be at a loss when it comes to picking plants for a particular bed, the teacher may be flummoxed by a tricky question and the farmer may dither over the best day to cut grass. It comes to us all.
Anyway, my recent writers’ block was, well, unblocked, as soon as I tuned into RTE 1’s The Business show and heard the very pro-active Galway chef JP McMahon talking about how all households used to be able to make bread. Now, I’ve previously written about making and baking bread, but I’ve not made any myself for a good while, all too easily accepting with gratitude the Brunette’s accomplished creations. JP inspired me to return to the gentle and rewarding art of soda-bread making, and here I am, paying it forward.

Soda bread
Soda bread is uniquely welded to Ireland’s history and cuisine. Born of poverty, struggle and making-do, it has remained a de-facto staple of Irish kitchens for generations. A filling bread, it helped one to stave off hunger. It also allowed households to use up soured milk in an age of no refrigerators. (It’s the acid in soured buttermilk that interacts with bicarbonate of soda to rise the bread.)
It’s also dead easy to make! There are plenty of variations. Some like to fiddle with the white/brown flour ratios. Some add salt, some don’t; some add nuts or seeds; some like to add herbs, and some (like the Brunette) add a teaspoon of honey. Back in the ’90s, we used to make a version of white soda scones with dried mix herbs at PD’s Woodhouse restaurant in Dalkey.

What you need

  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 225 brown wholemeal flour
  • 400ml buttermilk
  • 2 free-range eggs (Penny says one is too dry)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Half tsp of salt
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil

What you do
Like all of my favourite recipes, it’s not too complex for de brain! Sieve everything except the wholemeal flour. Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Make a depression in the centre and pour in buttermilk, half your vegetable oil (use the rest for greasing the tin), crack in your egg/s and whisk these first with a fork (most recipes whisk or mix the egg and buttermilk separately, but why would Redmond want another bowl to wash?), then steadily pull all the remaining dry mixture into the eggy liquid and mix well. You don’t need to overwork this mix; it’s not like kneading yeast bread.
Turn out the mix directly from the mixing bowl into a greased loaf tin, or onto a well-floured, flat baking tray. Shape it up there and then, and add your cross on the top surface with a blade.
It’s very important to start the baking in a very hot, pre-heated oven. Give it 12 to 15 minutes at 220°c, then turn it down to 200°c for another 25 to 30 minutes. To see if it’s cooked, give the bread a knock – it’s done if this yields a good hollow sound. Obviously, if you skewer the bread, the skewer should come out dry – not wet or sticky – showing the dough is well cooked throughout. Let your bread rest for seven minutes on a wire rack before cutting, and enjoying.

Red Cabot is interested in food, nature and small things. He sells his food at Westport Country Markets in St Anne’s Boxing Club, James’s Street car park, Westport, every Thursday, from 8am to 1pm.

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