You wake up, and realise several things. Firstly, there is no bread in the house. Second, you forgot to set the bread maker the night before. Third, in spite of your best efforts, you can’t find any bread or bagels in the freezer. What to do?
Clearly, it would be very, very easy to pop down to the shops and actually buy some bread, but there is an alternative – quick and easy Irish soda bread. Not sure about it? G’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan!
Irish soda bread – as the name might suggest – does not rely on yeast, so there is no need to leave it for aaaaaaages to prove.
The secret is all the chemical-sounding stuff. You add baking soda, cream of tartar and buttermilk to the mixture, and these get jiggy together to produce the carbon dioxide necessary to make the loaf rise. In fact, things get, eh, “jiggy” as soon as you add the buttermilk, as its mild acidity starts the reaction. This means that you do need to work quickly – the reaction is on the go from the start, so you want just enough mixing to get everything combined, then whack the loaf onto a baking tray, let it stand for a moment, then slam into the oven.
This method of baking has its origins in the type of flour that was prevalent in Ireland a hundred or so years ago – not the strong bread flours that we have today for bread making, but softer types that worse less well with yeast. However, these flours work very well with the softer flour that was produced in Ireland. And Irish soda bread was born!
But that’s enough history for this early in the morning. You want to get your coffee on the go, and read the news on your laptop, feeling very pleased with yourself as the loaf bakes.
But there are many reasons why this is a great loaf. There is no kneading – just a quick mix, then shape roughly by hand. The rustic look actually adds to the charm. You want something that looks as if it came out of the oven of a little seaside cottage on the Irish coast. Another excellent thing about it is that it can be eaten while still warm. With yeast-leavened breads, they tend to have to cool down to be sliced properly. However, with its softer, more cake-like texture, Irish soda bread is utterly sublime cut into thick slices and spread generously with butter. It’s great with soups or cheese, but I like to add a large dollop of heather honey, and let the honey and butter melt into the bread. Perfect first thing in the morning scoffed down with a cuppa.
Now, while this bread is great fresh from the oven, it doesn’t keep very well. It’s good the day you make it, but the next day it sort of loses it. But no fear! Simply cut into slices and pop into the toaster – it is delicious! I’m not usually a big toast fan, but it really does wonders on this bread. Again, slather it with butter and honey for a great snack.
You’ve also got a bit of freedom in how to make this loaf. You can use just white flour, just wholemeal or a mixture of the two (I go for a mixture). If you like a but more texture, you can also add a handful of rolled jumbo oats. But if you’re going to be that healthy, make up for it with a decent slab of butter on top.
Finally, just one little note about the milk – you should use buttermilk if you can. You need the acidity of the buttermilk for the authentic taste and to get the reaction with the soda going. If you don’t have buttermilk, use normal milk which has been soured with a little lemon (see below in the recipe).
To make Irish soda bread:
• 150g white flour
• 300g wholemeal flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
• 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
• 50g butter
• 300ml buttermilk(*)
Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F). Dust a baking sheet with plain flour.
Put everything except the butter and buttermilk into a bowl and mix well. Rub the butter into the flour mixture until there are no lumps of butter left.
Add the buttermilk, and mix quickly using your hands. Knead very lightly – stop as soon as you have a soft dough. Form a ball and put on the baking sheet. Use a sharp knife to make a cross on top of the loaf. Allow to sit for one minute, then put in the oven. Put a separate dish with water in the oven to create steam.
Bake for 30 minutes until the crust is golden. When done, remove from the oven. You can slice and eat the loaf while still warm.
(*) If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use regular milk. Bring the milk to the boil, then allow to cool. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, and leave to stand for 5 minutes.
Worth making? Super easy and very, very tasty. This is the sort of bread that you want before you go for long walks on chilly days, or to set you up for a day of activities. It also makes a great way to mop up a thick, tasty vegetable soup.