Great-grandmother O’Neill and I met only once, when I was one and she was 100, but her Irish soda bread remains a staple of family celebrations. A tiny woman who spoke with a lilting brogue, she never left Brooklyn to go visiting without her iconic loaf in hand—dense and white and crumbling, studded with raisins and caraway seeds, lightly floured on top and inscribed with a cross.
My grandmother, her daughter-in-law, could never quite tease out the recipe (“a pinch of this, a handful of that” was about as far as she got) but various descendants have developed tasty approximations, which are served not only on Saint Patrick’s Day but at family gatherings year-round.
This month I visited Ireland for the first time and stood in the stony ruins of great-grandmother’s girlhood cottage, amid sheep pastures high above a blue bay. But the soda bread served in her native village and elsewhere bore little resemblance to our family’s festive specialty. The standard Irish version is brown and coarse, with nary a raisin or caraway seed in site.
Often called simply “brown bread” or “wheaten bread,” it is the opposite of a holiday food. Thick slices came with every breakfast we ate (smeared with marmalade or butter) and most lunches (accompanying potato and leek soup or in the form of cheese sandwiches.)
Both versions have a crumbling consistency and are made with buttermilk and baking soda, as opposed to yeast. But along with flour and salt, those are the only ingredients in the real thing. Great-grandmother’s classic—and what most Americans think of as Irish soda bread, based on recipes like this—is apparently a much gussied-up version of the no-nonsense original, using more expensive ingredients.
I now love both types, though apparently the bastardization of brown bread is anathema to some. The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread notes, in withering tones, that true Irish soda bread should not include any of the following: orange zest, sour cream, yogurt, chocolate, jalapenos—and especially not Irish whiskey. ("Talk about stereotyping!!!" it declares.)
“Would ‘French Bread’ (15th century) still be ‘French Bread’ if whiskey, raisins, or other random ingredients were added to the mix?” the Society's site asks. “Would Jewish Matzo (unleavened bread), used to remember the passage of the Israelites out of Egypt, still be Matzo if we add raisins, butter, sugar, eggs, and even orange zest?”
And yet I think it might be worth discreetly lacing your loaf with honey, nuts and wheat germ---I tasted some great variations on this theme in Ireland. The bread is reportedly very easy to make and at this time of year, makes a perfect hearty pairing for full-bodied autumn soups.