Thursday, March 15, 2012

Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Walnuts

I'm not a big St. Patrick's Day fan.  Here are a few reasons: I own exactly one green item of clothing, I'm not Irish, I don't enjoy drinking until I make myself sick, and I am past the age where it is appropriate to pinch people who aren't wearing green (I'm not sure what the cutoff is, but I'm pretty sure I crossed that bridge several years ago!).  So March 17th is just another day for me.  But because I know not everyone else out there is a Srooge about St. Patrick's day, and curiosity finally got the best of me, I made some Irish soda bread this week.

I have an old cookbook with a recipe for Irish soda bread that I've been wanting to make for a while, mainly just because I have never had it.  I'm sure there's a million varieties of Irish soda bread, and I didn't even know how authentic mine was, but I decided to give it a shot.  I liked that the recipe I used included whole wheat flour and the option of adding some dried fruit.  I used raisins because that's what was in my pantry.  This recipe suggested 2 cups of dried fruit.  I like raisins, but I don't like them that much, so I did half raisins and half walnuts.  Adding raisins and walnuts made this bread a lot more interesting!

While making this bread, I just knew it wasn't going to turn out right.  But I actually really liked it.  And it was so pretty I almost didn't want to cut into it!  Not only is this bread tasty, but it is versatile as well.  The first day I made it we ate it with steaks.  And the next day I had it for breakfast, and as a snack.  It satisfied every time!

The preparation of this bread was interesting to me.  As the name suggests, this bread relies on baking soda as a leavening agent, as opposed to yeast.  This would put it in the quick bread category.  Yet my recipe instructed to knead for a short time, which is more typical of a yeast bread.  The end result was bread that had a hard crust like a yeast bread, but an interior that was more like a quick bread.  Because it doesn't have yeast, this bread doesn't require time to rise, so you don't need all day to make it!

I have always been a little curious why Irish soda bread is considered "Irish."  So I did some quick research on the history of Irish soda bread.  Non-nerds can skip this part.  Basically what I learned is that bicarbonate of soda (the fancy name for baking soda) became commercially available in the 1800s, although the concept of using a soda as a leavening agent was already established.  Baking soda became popular for its ease of use and affordability.  According to the Society for the Preservation Of Irish Soda Bread (yeah, that's a real thing!) there are two reasons soda bread became popular in Ireland.  One reason is that the soft wheat used for flour in Ireland was more suitable for making quick bread than yeast bread.  And after the potato famine and the ensuing poverty, baking soda was cheaper and more available than yeast for making leavened bread.  I guess it just stuck!

Here is one of the early recipes for "soda cake" as found in and 1824 edition of "The Virginia Housewife" by Mary Randolph: "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."

OK, non-nerds can join back in.  Sorry about that little diversion.  This recipe was really pretty simple.  You start by mixing together whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, oats (maybe not the most authentic ingredient!), baking powder, and baking soda, and sugar.
Then in a small bowl, or liquid measuring cup, combine melted butter or margarine, buttermilk, and a beaten egg.  If you don't have buttermilk, put about 5 tsp vinegar into a measuring cup and add milk to make 1 3/4 cups.  Let it sit for about 5 minutes.
Stir the milk mixture into the flour mixture and stir it until well combined.  If you are using walnuts and raisins, which I highly recommend, fold them in now.
Move the dough to a floured work surface and knead for about 2 minutes.  I had to add some flour at this point to get the dough to come together enough to knead it.  I didn't measure it (I wish I would have!) but I am guessing I added about 1/2 cup.  Because this requires only a little bit of kneading, I didn't bother getting out my stand mixer.
Once the dough is fairly smooth, form it into 2 balls.  Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Flatten them slightly and cut a cross on the top of each loaf.  After all, the Irish are good Christian people!
Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly before eating.  This was really good the first day, and I don't think it lost any of its quality the second day I ate it.  By day three it was getting a little stale.  So eat it up quick! 

Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Walnuts
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more if needed)
1/2 cup quick cooking oats
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup margarine or butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 3/4 cup buttermilk
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large mixing bowl whisk together flours, oats, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar.  In a small bowl, combine melted margarine, egg, and buttermilk.  Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until well blended.  Fold in walnuts and raisins.
Lightly dust work surface with flour.  Turn dough onto surface and knead about 2 minutes to gather the dough into a smooth ball.  Add additional flour to dough if needed.  Divide dough in half and round each into a ball.  Place on baking sheet, spaced well apart and press down lightly on top.  Slash a cross on the top of each loaf with a sharp knife.
Bake 40-45 minutes.

Recipe from Mom Street's Collection

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