My Grandpa O’Brien used to say “there are two kinds of people. People who are Irish and people who wish they were Irish.” Every March brought on a little of this bluster, with a wide grin and pride in our heritage. And so it’s time to skip the green beer and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a nod to a great culture.
Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland is one of my organic heroes. She runs a professional culinary school where the first recipe is compost. And when people compliment her cooking, she give all the credit to her growers. This is clearly a woman who understand our connection to the land.
Darina and I spoke together on a panel at the International Association of Culinary Professionals about supporting sustainability and making connections with local growers. She was a wealth of inspiration about how to help people understand why these connections mean so much.
She’s also steeped in traditional foods, which are just as important, because just as we’re losing small farms every day, we’re also losing food traditions. It was from Darina that I first learned about authentic Irish soda bread, made even better with Irish butter. It’s delightfully simple, but the recipe I’m sharing today has the addition of whiskey-soaked raisins, a boozy indulgence that you wouldn’t find in the old days, and an egg added to the buttermilk. Darina says that the egg was added on days where the field work was extra strenuous and people needed a bit more protein. The raisins make it the spotted dog variation. Swap in chocolate chips and you have stripey cat.
Skip this step at your peril…
The signature of authentic Irish soda bread is the big X cut through the center. Some might speculate that this is the blessing of the bread by making a sign of the cross. Pragmatics say it’s to make sure the bread bakes in the center. Darina explains the real reason, which is to let the fairies out. One can imagine that to trap fairies in baking bread would result in severe consequences indeed.
A word about buttermilk
Buttermilk gives baked goods a lovely tender soft crumb, making it perfect for soda bread scones and other baked goods. But if you don’t have it in the house, do not despair. You don’t have to venture out in the freezing rain to buy a pint. The old-fashioned remedy is to mix vinegar or lemon juice in milk and you’ll get a great result.
Spotted dog Irish soda bread
3/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup Irish whiskey
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk*
Pour raisins and whiskey into a small bowl and set aside to soak for about an hour or up to overnight. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together egg and buttermilk. Form a well in the flour, then pour almost all the buttermilk combo into the center, reserving about a tablespoon to brush the top. Using your impeccably clean hand or a sturdy wooden spoon, mix the buttermilk into the flour using ever widening motions. When dough has almost come together, add the raisins and mix until everything is combined.
Dump dough onto a generously floured surface, and knead several times with the heel of your hand until the dough is smooth and the texture of a baby’s bottom. Form into a round loaf about six or seven inches in diameter. Cut a cross into the dough about an inch deep. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet and brush the top with the remaining liquid. Bake in the center of the oven for until golden, about 25 minutes. The bread is ready when it sounds hollow when you rap the bottom with your knuckle.
* To make sour milk
Pour 1/2 cup milk into a liquid measuring cup and bring to room temperature. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons white or cider vinegar. Let steep for about 15 minutes until milk curdles.
Last year: Irish cheddar waffles with smoked salmon