Well, dearhearts, our table is nearly set for a Saint Patrick’s Day dinner party: we’ve got braised lamb, Irish cheeses, colcannon with kale, pints of Guinness. And if I can manage to abstain from devouring the entire loaf before dinner, we have one more classic, essential addition: soda bread.
This no-knead recipe comes from Myrtle Allen (via Colman Andrews’ recent cookbook), beloved matriarch of Irish cooking and the proprietor of the Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland. Daughter-in-law Darina Allen founded the famed cookery school at Ballymaloe and serves as head of the Slow Food movement in Ireland; she’s a sort of Alice Waters figure to Myrtle’s Marion Cunningham, picking up where her mother-in-law left off in codyifing the canon of Irish cuisine and promoting traditional cooking and agriculture. (Darina’s daughter-in-law, Rachel, is a popular television chef on the BBC. Quite the culinary dynasty, the Allens.)
And thanks to Myrtle, I’m happy to report that my unlucky streak with soda bread recipes is officially over. (I can’t tell you how many gummy, leaden doorstops I’ve made in an attempt to make a decent loaf. What should have been easy-peasy was just so sad.) From Andrews I learned that (aha!) Irish flour is significantly softer than American all-purpose (meaning it has less protein and a weaker gluten structure) and so for this recipe I used whole-wheat pastry flour, with a fantastic result. The bread has a tender, tightly-knit crumb and a satisfying density (wonderful for toast) with a full, wholesome flavor that’s bolstered by an addition of Irish oats. I added a handful of currants and caraway seeds, an Irish-American extravagance, but you can easily omit one or the other or both. Serve warm or room temperature with a slather of good salted Irish butter and preserves. Dinner’s ready!
Ballymaloe Irish Soda Bread
adapted from Colman Andrews’ The Country Cooking of Ireland, 2009
- 5 C whole-wheat pastry flour, preferably stone-ground
- 1/2 C Irish steel-cut oats or oat bran
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 to 4 cups buttermilk, cold (I used a scant 3 C)
- 1/2 (generous) C currants
- 1 Tbsp caraway seeds
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a baking sheet or line with parchment and set aside. In a small bowl, add the currants and enough water to cover and set aside to rehydrate.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, oatmeal, baking soda, salt and caraway seeds. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and pour in 2 cups of the buttermilk; gently stir from the center of the bowl outwards. Add the (drained) currants and enough additional buttermilk until you have a soft dough with no traces of raw flour. On a floured surface, turn out the dough and shape, without kneading, into a round (about 8-9″ in diameter). With a paring knife, cut a deep “X” in the top of the bread. Brush the top with buttermilk.
Bake on the prepared baking sheet for 45-60 minutes, until well-browned and the bottom of the soda bread sounds hollow when tapped. Serve warm or room temperature.
Note: Baking soda activates when it comes into contact with acid (the buttermilk, in our case). Using cold ingredients will help stall that process until the dough hits the oven, ensuring a good rise and better texture.