If you're like countless others who anxiously await St. Patrick's Day, you have already begun to plan your celebration. You've rummaged the closet in search of green clothing, decorated your home with shamrocks and leprechauns, and searched countless cookbooks for Irish specialties. Before you finalize your menu, be sure to include soda bread. Sliced thick, slathered with butter, and served alongside corned beef and cabbage, soda bread adds a festive flair to every St. Patrick's Day meal.
With a history spanning more than two centuries, soda bread is a traditional Irish specialty. The first loaf, consisting of little more than flour, baking soda, salt, and sour milk, made its debut in the mid-1800s when baking soda found its way into Irish kitchens. At the time, bread-making in rural Ireland was performed domestically using minimal ingredients, equipment, and experience. Baking soda offered home cooks the opportunity to broaden their repertoire of recipes. Providing a quick, convenient, and reliable leavener, baking soda was simple to work with and easy to store. It also produced a better-tasting bread than what was originally available in the 19th century, making soda bread a staple of the Irish diet.
Today, soda bread is enjoyed throughout the world. Many take pleasure in its tangy flavor, dressing it with butter and preserves for breakfast, eating it with cheese for a light snack, or serving it as an accompaniment to a celebratory feast. As a quick bread, it is simple to prepare. The ingredients come together in a matter of minutes and the loaf is ready to eat in under half an hour. Soda bread can be made with a variety of flours and include a number of added flavors and textures from dried fruits, herbs, and seeds. The Culinary Institute of America's version, prepared with the addition of sugar, raisins, and caraway seeds, uses white cake flour for a light, tender crumb.
"Like most baked goods, soda bread doesn't keep for long," says Chef Kastel. "If properly cooled, wrapped well in plastic, and stored at room temperature, it will maintain its quality for about two days."
To keep the bread moist and preserve its unique texture, some traditional recipes recommend wrapping freshly baked loaves in a clean tea towel while they cool. When serving, divide the bread into quarters using the cross on top of the loaf as a guide. The characteristic marking, cut into the dough before baking, allows ample room for the loaf to expand in the oven and provides four pre-portioned sections, also known as "farls." Legend suggests that the cross is sliced into the bread to scare away evil spirits. Truth or folly, soda bread wouldn't be soda bread without it.
Note: You may be puzzled by our recipe since it does not actually call for baking soda. Instead, we use baking powder. Our chefs tested this recipe both ways and far preferred the taste and texture of the baking powder version. Rest assured, the recipe is technically authentic—baking powder is simply a blend of baking soda and cream of tartar.
Nutrition analysis per 2-ounce serving: 156 calories, 3.75 g protein, 26.5 g carbohydrate,
2 g fiber, 4.5 g total fat (2.5 saturated fat), 637 mg sodium, 12 mg cholesterol