By Elizabeth Speth
I am an early riser.
I have been all my life, and 4 am is my preferred wake-up time. Mostly because I want breakfast. Well, always and only because I want breakfast.
I am also Irish. Somewhat. My great-grandmother Margaret Mary was a blue-eyed Mundy, and I took custody, after her passing, of her Irish drinking habits.
Therefore I must have Irish soda bread for breakfast every day. Sliced thinly, toasted thoroughly, slathered with butter and orange marmalade. This is non-negotiable for my peace of mind. Just Google: ‘Irish, negotiation, peace’. You will see how serious I am on the subject.
The history of Irish Soda Bread is humble and excruciatingly violent.
It originated around the middle of the 15th Century when the Boers, during a brief and fragile alliance with the voracious and pillaging Mongol hordes, invaded Ireland. The poor, beleaguered Irish peasants needed something hearty, portable and delicious to sustain them as they fled, but they did not have time to wait for bread to leaven. They only had time to run to the grocery store and grab a box of baking soda, and so was born this glorious loaf.
Tragically, there are no existing photographs from this time period due to the Great Irish Fire of ’23, but please enjoy this illustration, which is loosely related to Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales.
I think these fellows look vaguely as though they might be fleeing with soda bread in their bellies.
You can verify all of this history for yourself, if you like doing that sort of thing. But I hope you don’t. We have baking to do, and research can be tedious. Let’s just move on, shall we?
Before I share my great grandmother’s recipe, I will ask your forgiveness in advance for two untraditional elements. The first is the spice Cardamom. If you don’t know what it is, get a bottle immediately. Get a bottle just to smell, and you will realize that you never really understood the smell of Christmas. Cardamom is the smell of Christmas. And childhood, and fairy tales.
The second deviation from the classic recipe, which dominated Pinterest for all of the 1450s, is grated orange peel. Neither cardamom nor orange peel made an appearance in any recipe from that period, according to historians, but let’s not blame the fleeing Irish (bless them), for they were highly distracted.
Are you ready? Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Please assemble:
4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup very cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 3/4 cup buttermilk
Grated zest of one orange
1/2 cup currants, which you can plump up by soaking in a bit of rum if you are that sort of person
You must proceed in the traditional, centuries-old way, with an electric mixer. Put the first five dry ingredients into a bowl and set on low speed, and then add the cold sliced butter and wait until the blade turns the mixture into fine crumbs, three or four minutes. Add the buttermilk, egg, orange zest and drunken currants.
Don’t overmix this. The dough will be wet. It should look like the beautiful Irish countryside after a devastating flood. Like this:
Turn it out onto a floured board, and try to coax it into some sort of a roundish shape, which you will then plunk onto a greased cookie sheet, or one covered with parchment paper. Sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Traditionally, you are meant to cut two intersecting slashes across the top of the bread before baking, but don’t ask me why. Just do it. Make the sign of the cross and drink a prayer that your bread comes out.
Yes. I said drink a prayer. Jameson is widely considered a good Catholic whiskey and Bushmills is the Protestant invocation. You are going to have to decide where you stand on this one, for it is not my place to tell you. Just give me whichever one you don’t want.
Bake the bread for 50 or so minutes. Until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped, and your house smells heavenly, so good you would never want to flee it, even to escape an invading army.
Enjoy it toasted with butter and jelly in the morning, perhaps a little fruit, and coffee or tea. You will go into the world better for it.
In the late afternoon, slice it thinly and eat it as you would a cracker, with a glass of wine.
If you are not drinking wine and eating crackers in the late afternoon, then please do take this as an earnest suggestion to start. Leave work early to do it. Add some cheese, figs, savory spreads. Whatever you like.
Jumping briefly back into my role as tradition-spoiler, here are a few suggested add-ins, if you feel like mixing it up:
Rum-soaked golden raisins
Rum-soaked crystallized ginger
Rum-soaked fennel seeds
Rosemary, chopped finely
Rosemary, chopped finely, soaked in rum.
I think you understand what I am trying to say here.
In summation, my friends, and in the lilting and whiskey-soaked words of my bonny great grandmother, may the roads rise with you, may the wind be at your back, and may you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead, with warm bread in your belly.