With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, everyone is becoming Irish, at least for a few hours of the day, one day out of the year. A lot of people will be feasting on corned beef and cabbage, mashed potatoes or champ, and soda bread; and a whole lot of beer. I will be making something completely different and just as Irish, but that is for Sunday, March 17, famously known as St. Patrick’s Day around the world. I definitely have more than “a wee bit of Irish in me blood”, so I love to celebrate the holiday with traditional Irish foods.
Although soda bread is considered to be Irish, and is traditional Irish food, it actually originated with the Native Americans, centuries before it made it’s way to Ireland. It got its name, soda bread, from the pearl ash or potash that was a natural soda found in the wood ash the native Americans used to make their breads rise. When the use of bicarbonate soda was introduced to the European world in the mid 19th century, as an ingredient to use in breads instead of yeast, the use of soda in breads became very popular, particularly in Britain, Ireland, Austria and Poland. It really became popular in Ireland in the 1800’s after the potato famine, due to the increased poverty and hunger that was rampant throughout the land. By using soda to make their breads instead of yeast, breads could be made with only a few simple ingredients, which made it much cheaper to use, and the results were more consistent than they were with yeast. It also became very popular in Ireland, because the soft wheat is the only suitable flour that can grow in the Irish climate, and using the soda worked better than yeast with this soft wheat. The acidity of the buttermilk mixed with the base of the baking soda created a chemical reaction that allowed the dough to rise when baked. When made with the Irish soft wheat, soda bread does not form the gluten that is found in making yeast breads.
Traditional soda bread is a dense bread with a slightly sour dough taste and a hard crust. It is made in round loaves, and is always marked with a cross on top. We all know the Irish are famous for their legends and myths and their story telling abilities, which I am sure lends a hand into the legends and myths associated with soda bread and the Cross. Some say the soda bread was marked with the sign of the cross to ” let the devil out” while the bread is baking for good luck. Others say it is because soda bread is used a lot to celebrate Christian holidays, so it is marked with the sign of the Cross. And then a simple theory states that by marking it with a cross just made it real easy to separate into four quarters and serve. Who really knows, but it is always fun to speculate and to hear the legends and the lore.
Today, variations of soda bread are found all throughout Ireland, as well as in many other parts of the world, including the United States. You can find soda bread just about anywhere, made in many different ways. Today, I made some with cheddar cheese and onions and baking powder rather than baking soda. It came out soft and cake-like on the inside with a hard crust on the outside, and absolutely delicious!
Cheese and Onion Soda Bread
As you can see, I only needed a few simple, everyday items to make this delicious and easy to make bread.
Preheat the oven to 425* F
Throw some cornmeal on an ungreased baking sheet.
4 cups flour. with more for dusting
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk (I use the powdered buttermilk mixed with milk)
2 TBSP super fine sugar
3/4 stick of butter, softened and cubed
1 TBSP baking powder
1/2-3/4 onion, finely chopped
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
In a food processor, mix together all the ingredients except the cheese and the onions. Mix until the dough forms into a soft ball.
When the dough is ready and has formed into a soft ball, place it on a lightly floured surface, then cut the dough in half, to make two rounds. Divide the cheese and the onions equally and incorporate into each of the dough rounds, making sure all the cheese and the onions are mixed thoroughly into the dough.
Form the dough into balls and pat down to make them about 2 inches thick. Place each dough rough onto the baking sheet. With a sharp knife, make a “T” or a Cross into the center of each loaf. Then dust lightly with more flour and place the dough into the oven. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until done. It should sound hollow if you tap on the bottom of the bread.
Serve warm with butter and enjoy the simple goodness of this delicious bread.