Wednesday, March 13, 2002




An Irish Baker’s Best


Keri Fisher,

Globe Correspondent


SHERKIN ISLAND, COUNTY CORK, Ireland    Pauline O'Driscoll is making soda bread with Aidan, 3, as they often do together. While they work, the Atlantic Ocean is roaring outside her window. O'Driscoll mixes the ingredients for plain white soda bread, a seemingly simple combination of flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. "It's one of the hardest breads to make," she says, "even though it seems so easy."

And though she has been making the bread all her life, O'Driscoll has only recently mastered it. She took a cooking class at the famous Ballymalloe Cooking School in Cork, and then worked there for two years. Though she no longer cooks professionally, she makes soda bread weekly for her husband, Mark, and year-old son Jason.

Though most people think of soda bread as a longtime fixture on the Irish table, it's a relatively recent addition. It was first made in Ireland during the second half of the 19th century, when baking soda was introduced. The bread turned out to be a perfect match for Ireland's soft wheat, which didn't react well with yeast. For large, and often poor, families, the recipe was ideal and baked easily in a cast iron pot over the fire. Eileen Hayes, 63, of Cork has been making soda bread since she was 8 years old. One of 11 children, Hayes recalls baking bread constantly. "We baked eight cakes [one by one] in a bastible [cast iron pot] over an open fire," she says.

The simplicity of the soda bread recipe can be misleading. Tim Allen, author of "The Ballymalloe Bread Book" and baking instructor at the school, writes: "The difficulty people have with soda bread is the temptation to over-mix it. They just can't quite accept that it only needs the gentlest of mixing."

Allen's wife, Darina, taught O'Driscoll to make the bread. She mixes the dry ingredients in a large bowl and slowly adds buttermilk, incorporating it into the flour with a steady hand. She turns the dough onto a floured counter, gives it a few shaping turns and places the large, domed - very soft - loaf onto a floured baking sheet. With a serrated knife, she cuts an "x" into the loaf, and with a fork pokes holes.

The poking, she says, "lets the fairies out." She rubs buttermilk onto it for color before placing it in the oven.

One of the most important aspects of soda bread is quick mixing and getting it into the oven as soon as possible. "The moisture activates the raising agent," explains O'Driscoll, which means that as soon as the buttermilk mixes with the baking soda, the bread starts rising.

After it has baked about 40 minutes, O'Driscoll takes the loaf from the oven, holds it to her ear, and raps lightly on the bottom. "A few more minutes," she says. Five minutes later, the tapping of the bottom yields the desired hollow response, and the bread is set in the window to cool. "You have to let it cool for a few minutes," she explains, "or else it will be doughy."

Once you've mastered the basic soda bread recipe, you can begin to experiment. O'Driscoll likes to add fresh robust herbs and rub the dough with garlic oil before baking. Allen includes recipes in his book for soda bread with rosemary and sun-dried tomatoes, spotted dog (with raisins), stripy cat (with chocolate chips) and of course, brown soda bread.

At The Baker's Oven in Kinsale, a cozy bakeshop heady with the smell of warm sugar, a request for a loaf of soda bread gets you a brown loaf.

But technically speaking, soda bread is white, brown soda bread is brown. Recipes are practically identical, simply replacing white flour with whole-wheat. But flours in the United States are different than Irish flours.

Irish flour is made from spring wheat, giving it a softer and finer texture, like our pastry flour. Irish whole-wheat flour has a fine flour texture but is coarser overall with larger flakes of wheat bran incorporated. You can buy Irish flour here at Irish food stores.

Across Ireland, soda bread is showing up as brown soda bread ice cream, soda scones filled with whipped cream and homemade jam, and soda bread French toast. O'Driscoll makes a version of eggs Benedict, using warm soda bread spread with butter, topped with poached eggs, bacon, asparagus, and hollandaise sauce.

Recipes for soda bread vary throughout Ireland, often changing bit by bit over the generations. Hayes's soda bread, for example, is as close to her mother's as she can get it. "I inherited the recipe at a time when nobody had household scales," says Hayes. She learned to make a soda bread that was baked on a sheet, instead of a wet dough baked in a loaf pan, which some bakers do now.

As with most foods in Ireland, it's not just the recipe, it's the way you eat it. On Sherkin Island that means ducking inside just before the storm hits on a cold, rainy March day, spreading the warm, freshly baked bread thickly with local butter and drinking sweet, milky tea in front of the fire.

Irish flour is available at Kiki's Kwik Mart, 236 Faneuil St., Brighton, 617-783-5146, and at other Irish specialty food stores.


             1/2   cup                      currants

          1 1/2   cups                    all-purpose flour

                1   cup                      white pastry flour

                1   teaspoon             baking soda

             1/2   teaspoon             salt

                2   Tablespoons       sugar

             1/4   teaspoon             lemon juice

                1   cup                      buttermilk

                                                extra buttermilk (for brushing)

                                                extra sugar (for sprinkling)


1. Soak the currants in hot water for 15 minutes. Drain them.

2. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Flour a baking sheet.

3. In a large bowl, combine the all-purpose and pastry flours, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Add the currants. Form a well in the center, add the lemon juice and buttermilk and mix with a wooden spoon just until the dough comes together.

4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pat it out to a 1/2-inch thickness. For square scones: shape the dough into a rectangle. Using a sharp knife or pizza wheel, trim the edges to form right angles and cut the dough into 12 pieces. For round scones: use a 2-inch round cookie cutter with sharp edges (if you use a drinking glass, the sides of the scones will be pinched) to cut out 12 scones. Reshape trimmings.

5. Place the scones on the baking sheet, brush them with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar. Transfer to the hot oven and bake them for 15 minutes or until they are lightly browned and a toothpick inserted to the center of a scone comes out clean. Serve warm.


Makes 12.




Work quickly when you add the buttermilk, taking care not to overwork the dough. Get it into the oven as soon as you can.


          2 1/2   cups                    white pastry flour

                1   teaspoon             baking soda

                1   teaspoon             salt

                1   cup                      buttermilk (more or less)

                                                extra flour (for shaping)

                                                extra buttermilk (for brushing)


1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Flour a baking sheet.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. Make a well in the center and slowly add the buttermilk, mixing with a spoon until the dough comes together but isn't wet.

3. Turn dough out onto a floured counter and quickly, without kneading it, shape it into a domed round. Place the round on the baking sheet. With a serrated knife, cut an "x" into the top of the round, letting each cut run across the entire bread. With a fork, prick it gently 5 to 6 times. Brush the top of the loaf with buttermilk.

4. Bake the bread for 40 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Let it sit at least 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 1 round.



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