When Italians make bread, they knead it lovingly, stretch it and fold it back, stretch it again, anoint it with olive oil, wrap it up and give it time to rest in a warm place. Il pane is a living thing and must be coaxed into rising up to meet its maker. Irish bread is a far more straight forward affair. Mix it with stiff fingers but keep your hands off it and don’t give it time to think before slamming it into a hot oven.
Irish soda bread is easier to make, I think, certainly faster. If you start this now, you’ll be eating it, slathered with melting butter, in an hour.
There are endless variations (add herbs, seeds, oats, treacle) but these are the two my Granny made for us. Brown bread, which we ate with cheese and ham, and a white soda cake studded with juicy sultanas. Granny never parted with her recipe. She said there was no recipe and, it’s true, she measured it all by hand and eye into a big basin, clattered it around and landed it into the oven faster than any of us could write down what she did. I haven’t managed to duplicate her bread (or her gravy) but these come close enough to comfort me.
Mary Miller’s Brown Bread.
300g plain, white flour (you don’t need strong flour)
150g wholemeal flour (Granny was loyal to a brand called Heart’s Delight, who wouldn’t be?)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
350ml buttermilk (if you can’t get it, add 1tbsp lemon juice to milk and wait an hour or, at a pinch, use plain runny yogurt)
Turn the oven on to 230C/450F/Gas8
Mix all the dry ingredients in your biggest mixing bowl. Incorporate air by lifting the flour up high and letting it fall through your fingers. Do this until a feeling of calm descends and/or the oven light goes out.
Making a claw shape with your fingers and holding them stiff, turn the flour from the edges into the liquid. Keep moving, clockwise (or anti-clockwise if you are left-handed) around the bowl, flipping the bread in on itself, just until it comes together. Don’t knead it !
Get this into the oven as quickly as you can. The bicarbonate of soda (alkaline) begins to react with the buttermilk (acid) as soon as they are mixed so there is no time to lose.
After 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 200C/400F/gas6, and bake for 30-35 minutes more. Check the bread by tapping the bottom. It should sound hollow.
Granny always wrapped her bread in a teatowel while it cooled so I do too. I think that makes the crust softer; you can experiment. The other thing she was quite strict about was that you should break, not cut, the bread into quarters and then slice it. Again, I don’t really know why but it’s a very pleasing operation so why argue?
White Fruity Soda bread.
1lb (450g) white flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
3oz (75g) sultanas (or glace cherries)
1tsp sugar to sprinkle on top.
It’s exactly the same.
One last tip from my Granny; if you have white bread left the next day, and want the best toast in the world, butter the bread first and then put it under the grill until it browns. PS. I’ve added a page to my header with links to my recipes; take a look.