This March, we're taking you on a tour of the Old World, with a focus on how traditional European dishes are influencing modern cuisine.
Forget everything you think you know about Irish soda bread.
It wasn't always the giant dry monstrosity that likely comes to mind—rather, it was (and remains) a daily staple in Ireland. But somewhere along the trip across the Atlantic and into cellophane bags in our supermarkets, it picked up passengers like eggs and caraway seeds, turning into a giant scone-like baked good. That's why this year, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, we're giving it a face-lift with this nutty brown loaf, fortified by sweet golden raisins and speckles of chopped rosemary (see the recipe).
Imen McDonnell, blogger and author of the recent The Farmette Cookbook ($35), didn't even "have so much as a nibble" of soda bread before moving to Ireland. "Growing up, my mother would make these sort of chalky baking soda biscuits, which I didn't care for. I presumed soda bread would be similar." The "girl meets boy, falls in love, moves to a farm in Ireland and spends her days cooking in the countryside" dream is a reality for McDonnell, whose delightful book documents how cooking helped her navigate her new home abroad and discover Irish traditions. One of which being the elegantly simple loaves that "go back to when thatched dwellings ruled the countryside" and remain well-loved across the country.
It's likely that soda bread first became popular in the mid-1840s, around the time of the potato famine. With just four ingredients—flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk—it meshed well with a poverty-stricken tuberless Ireland. It's a no-yeast (and thus no-proofing-wait-time) bread: The baking soda does all the heavy lifting after being kicked into action by the acid in the buttermilk to form tiny carbon dioxide bubbles that raise the loaf. When you add dried fruit like raisins, the traditional loaf turns into a "spotted dog." Ours is less dalmatian and more golden retriever, with plump sultanas spotting the surface—no chocolate chip confusion here.
In Ireland, soda bread is a year-round staple, not only reserved for St. Patrick's Day. But for a country that pays homage to the holiday with green beer and "Kiss me, I'm Irish" buttons, a homemade loaf to celebrate the holiday is the least we can do. The atmosphere is far from somber in Dublin, but McDonnell tells us that "ironically, it wouldn't compare to the madness of American celebrations."
McDonnell chooses to spend her holiday doing a traditional feast. And, no, that's not corned beef and cabbage ("corned beef isn't the same here; it's akin to Spam in a tin"), but rather just a special meal shared with the family. The specific dishes may vary, but plenty of desserts and sweets are "the norm," she says, as people are given the "day off" from Lent for St. Patrick's Day. So if you said goodbye to gluten after Mardi Gras, there's plenty of room in your agenda for a hunk of fresh bread.
Whether you go the butter-and-jam route or, like McDonnell, pair the bread with a bowl of lamb stew, is up to you. But there is one rule: "The only way to eat Irish soda bread is fresh out of the oven. But then again, it doesn't last that long in our house anyway."
We can attest to that.
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