I’ve met a lot of soda breads in my life. Some dense, some light and some disguised as soda bread but actually, technically something else. My mother’s annual Irish soda bread (another recipe I need to add to ask for) was distinct made with caraway and currants with a tough exterior but tender tangy bite. Turns out it’s more of a kissing cousin to true soda bread.
First a bit of history of the bread which isn’t really as old as you may be thinking. In it’s most simplest description it is a quick bread earning it’s name for it’s leavening agent, baking soda which was substituted for yeast. The climate being a bit damp and all. In fact it wasn’t until the 1840s that bicarbonate of soda (i.e. bread soda) as a leavening agent was introduced to Ireland. The use of buttermilk reacts with the baking soda and carbon dioxide bubbles cause the bread to rise. According to the Boston Globe, "traditional model of soda bread is based on four ingredients: whole – wheat flour, buttermilk, baking soda…and salt."
If you’re traveling around the south of Ireland, you’ll hear soda bread referred to as soda cake, which is baked in the oven and served as a circular, well, cake. If you’re wandering across the north, you’ll probably hear it called farl, a variety that’s baked on the stove in a pan and cut into triangular pieces. A skillet version of soda bread farl is a central accompaniment to an Ulster Fry. It’s a hearty start to the morning but not too heart-friendly: fried eggs, fried Irish bacon, fried soda farl, fried potato farl (a 1/4-inch thick griddle-cooked potato bread), fried black pudding, fried sausages, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms. The name originates from the Gaelic word fardel, meaning "fourth part."
As to the cross in the center is made, so folklore tells us, it is either to let the fairies out or to ward of evil or more practically perhaps to allow the dough to rise and for even slicing.
Nuances exist partly due to families living in remote farmhouses where most kitchens had only open hearths, not ovens, so the breads that developed were baked on griddles or in large three-legged black iron pots over fragrant peat fires.
According to a few research points if your recipe, contains raisins, eggs, baking powder, sugar or shortening, it’s a cake not a bread. Historically raisins were imported and as a result expensive and not commonly used. The sweeter is all the better to go with a ‘cuppa at teatime. Keep in mind that soda bread with raisins is sometimes referred to as spotted dog. If you pre-soak those raisins in Irish whiskey you have sotted dog. My mother’s variation is actually a seedy bread due to its use of caraway seeds. Brown bread is one that has been made with whole wheat flour. Variations on soda bread also can be found in, Treacle, Feckle and the Australian outback bread called Damper.
A few tips when making Irish soda bread, don’t over knead the dough as it will produce bread which Irish mums call "hard as the hobs of hell." However you decide to make this bread serving it with Irish Kerrygold butter is a tasty choice.
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