I was in the mood for a mild kind of dessert recently. The thought of fresh Irish soda bread, slathered in that holiest of butters, Kerry Gold, with a dollop of apple butter on top, whizzed into my mind. Irish soda bread, when it’s done properly, is the best bread ever: rich, full-bodied in flavour, mild, vaguely sweet but perfectly compatible with savoury items. No bread even comes close to matching soda bread when it’s in fyne fettle. What’s more, this bread beautifully complements red wine beef stew. In my opinion, it’s worth making this soda bread just to have with the stew. Yes, it’s really that good.
I decided to give this recipe a go, as it comes from a woman in County Clare – the afore-mentioned Mrs O’Callaghan – who claims to have been making this same bread for over 40 years. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but the smell of the bread while it baked was so enticing that Husband and I couldn’t wait for the bread to cool before we started hacking at it. I waited eagerly for his verdict; if Husband didn’t like it, then it wasn’t good soda bread. Trust me when I say this: Husband is a bona fide Irish soda bread snob. He’s had dozens of varieties of soda bread, and he’s been subjected to countless “interpretations” of what a true soda bread should be. One bite of this and he closed his eyes. After he finished chewing, he said, “This is real soda bread.” No compliment could have been better.
I’ve been experimenting with flax seed lately, and substituted a small amount of ground flax seed for an equivalent amount of the all-purpose flour. I couldn’t detect it in the finished bread, but it made me feel better to eat a little less flour and a little more flax seed. If you don’t want to use flax seed, then omit it and use the full 3 cups of all-purpose flour that are called for in the original recipe.
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Mrs O’Callaghan’s Soda Bread
3 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached, though it really doesn’t matter), minus 3 heaping TBS
3 heaping TBS ground flax seed
3 cups whole wheat flour, plus additional flour as needed (if adding extra flour to thicken dough, add an equivalent amount of flax seed)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 stick unsalted butter + 1/2 stick salted butter, cold and cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 cups buttermilk, plus additional buttermilk as needed
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Whisk together dry ingredients. Mix in brown sugar until thoroughly incorporated and no lumps remain. Cut in the butter until it is evenly incorporated into the dry ingredients and is in pea-sized pieces. Using your hands (using a fork, pastry cutter, or spoon does not mix ingredients evenly enough), stir in buttermilk until a shaggy ball forms. If necessary, correct dough consistency by adding either more buttermilk, in increments of 2 TBS, or more whole wheat flour. If adding flour, be sure to add an equivalent amount of flax seed.
Handling the dough as little as possible, form it into a 7″ round. Cut a large “X” on the centre top of the bread. Bake on a greased cookie sheet (an insulated cookie sheet is best) for about 40 minutes, or until the bottom of the bread makes a hollow sound when tapped. Remove to a wire rack and cool completely.
Source: Adapted from Bon Appétit, March 2010