Irish Soda Bread

Nanna Kelly came from County Mayo, Ireland. She loved a plate of ham and cabbage with some good potatoes, followed by a fine cup of tea and her own homemade Irish soda bread. Nanna -- "God love her," as she might say -- went to her eternal reward some 15 years ago, leaving me wondering how she made such delicious bread. With St. Patrick's Day here, I have to make my own soda bread.

I started with sister Nancy, keeper of the few family recipes that have been passed down. "Well," she said, "I substitute plain yogurt for the buttermilk or the water," she said. "It makes for a nice texture and a moist bread. When I use raisins, I soften them overnight before putting them in the bread. I'll use a bit less yogurt in the mixture if I am using raisins."

Nancy also boasted about her soda bread's staying power. "I gave a loaf to a friend last year, and she said it tasted delicious a week later."

"The Irish soda bread looks very different at home," said Tom Dowd, general manager and head chef at Hooley's Irish Pub and Grill in Rancho San Diego. Though his restaurant does not sell soda bread -- they do make the traditional Irish wheaten bread -- Dowd recalled the soda bread he grew up with in County Longford, Ireland. "When I make it," he said in a musical brogue, "I just make it the way I know how to make it, which is the way my mother used to make it. It's not something they teach in culinary school. It's made in a round flat-bottomed Bundt pan, and it is like a hot cross bun. You score it deeply with a knife, so it looks like there is a crucifix on the top of it. I have seen it with raisins here, but I've never seen it with raisins in Ireland. Occasionally they do have it with currants around Ash Wednesday -- as a replacement to a hot cross bun, and because of the deep crucifix score in it. But that is not traditional, because grapes aren't indigenous to the island.

"Back East," chef Dowd continued, "they use a lot of caraway seeds in soda bread to flavor it -- giving it almost a rye flavor. But caraway wasn't available in Ireland before free trade, so traditionally there are no caraway seeds in soda bread either. Out here I have seen soda bread in pound cake loaf form, and to me, that changes it. It makes the crust a little bit harder than it used to be at home."

What consistency should the dough have?

"It's a bread dough. You make it as sticky or as not sticky as you want when you flour the rolling pin. But the closest description I would have to it would be French peasant bread as opposed to Italian peasant bread. Italian peasant breads are far more aerated, and French peasant bread would be denser, and more moist. The difference is in the crust. The crust on soda bread is not going to cut the roof of your mouth, whereas a peasant bread from France or Italy will."

I've heard that some people use buttermilk instead of water in their breads. Dowd chuckled when I told him that. "There is an Irish song, 'Drinking buttermilk all the week long, and whiskey on a Sunday.' We would never waste something as valuable as buttermilk in bread. I am sure it would render a nice dough, but it wouldn't be traditional. Traditionally we would never waste buttermilk because Ireland was a poor country."

When do they eat the soda bread in Ireland?

"Where I grew up in Ireland, our main meal of the day was at noon. Then when dinnertime is [here in the States], that would be our teatime. There is tea in the afternoon, and then there is a real tea, which is at about six o'clock for working-class houses in Ireland. That's when I remember eating soda bread -- warm, with butter on it. So my mother would have made it during the day."

"There is also another variation on the soda bread," offered Frances Avik of the Irish Shoppe, "what we call a Tea Brack. You soak your fruit [that will be used in the soda bread] overnight in a cup of tea and Irish whiskey. It is soda bread, but it is a little darker, a little richer. That one has currants and raisins, whatever you want to put in it."

Sarah Tritschler, waitress at the Field, comes from Waterford, Ireland. "You could have soda bread for teatime, or for what they call 'foursies' or 'elevensies.'" she said. "I'm not a good cook so I don't make it, I buy it here at the Field [$8.50 a loaf]."

Shakespeare's Corner Shop in Midtown sells an Irish soda mix for $5.25. Tom Giblin's Irish Pub in Carlsbad sells a small loaf of soda bread for $3.50. For those looking to hear a few brogues, the House of Ireland in Balboa Park serves soda bread and tea every Sunday afternoon.

1. Irish soda bread

2. St. Patrick

3. Brack

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