Many moons ago, in a time best left buried admist the other scrap and rabble of my youth, I worked for a brief spell at an Irish pub. It was largely a lesson in humility, for reasons I won't delve into here (but I will tell you that the uniform involved a kelly green bow tie and hideously unflattering shorts of the same color). The one good memory of the place is that of their Irish Soda Bread. It was baked fresh every day in the restaurant's enormous basement kitchen. The sweet, toasty, nutty perfume that wafted from the kitchen and through the catacomb-like hallways was the only thing that kept me from succumbing to the heebie jeebies that the subterranean parts of this old building conjured.
The bread was nothing much to look at. It was a humble, round loaf; light brown and a little powdery. But one bite, and everyone was hooked. This deceptively simple looking bread possessed an uncanny complexity -- a slight sweetness offset by the salty bite of the baking soda; the nuttiness of the wheat and the toasty crunch of the crust...heavenly! I haven't been able to find anything quite like it since.
While perusing a recent issue of one of my food magazines, I came across a recipe for Irish Soda Bread. A quick review of the ingredients and I was confident that this could be the key to recreating that amazing bread from my past. The article was written by Andrew McCarthy -- yes, that's right ladies, THAT Andrew McCarthy:
THE Andrew "I swooned over you most of my teenage years" McCarthy. I fell "madly in love" with him in Pretty In Pink. I was sure that if only I could turn an old dress into a prom gown, that I too could win his heart. I forgave him his indiscretions in Less Than Zero, wanted to tear Andie MacDowell's hair out in St. Elmo's Fire, and looked beyond the obvious creepiness of his obsession in Mannequin (I'm not sure I could have done it if they had used one of those Old Navy mannequins, but I digress). Oh Andrew! How I longed to gaze into your dreamy blue eyes! If my parents had only sprung for the new subscription to Hot Dog from Scholastic, I would have gladly taken down my Rick Springfield poster and replaced it with the 'Bonus' poster of you. You would have hung right next to John Taylor from Duran Duran. That would have been so rad.
So, when I saw this mouth-watering picture of (no, not Andrew McCarthy...get your mind out of the gutter...I'm a happily married woman) Irish soda bread and read that it was the result of my teen hearthrob's search throughout the Irish countryside for "the ultimate", I knew I had to try it. My expectations were high. The recipe hailed from Ireland; from a famous castle no less! But alas, I must tell you that the love affair is over. Andrew and I are no more after he failed to deliver his love in the form of the Scholastic Hot Dog Subscription Bonus Poster in 1986, and now the Ultimate Irish Soda Bread recipe in 2010. I hope Mr. Rook will take me back.
Not wanting to bore you, nor disparage the good name of the food magazine (that I adore) or the celebrity I pined over nearly a quarter of a century ago, I will simply tell you that the recipe fell short of my expectations. Perhaps the humidity was too high or too low. Maybe the oven wasn't properly calibrated. I'm loathe to admit it, but I can't rule out the possibility that I made a mistake. What resulted was edible, but crumbly and heavy. I looked over the recipe a dozen more times trying to figure out what went wrong. I decided to take matters into my own hands, using my own skills, experience and culinary know-how. I culled my recipe books and the internet reading dozens of recipes for Irish Soda Bread. I studied techniques, the commonalities and the differences, and combined everything I'd learned into an original recipe that I felt would bring me back to the "ultimate" bread that I remembered.
Today I had two trusty kitchen assistants, ages 2 and 5. I enjoy cooking with friends and family and figure that if kids can do it, then perhaps it might inspire others to try the same with their children when the recipe is shared. The girls had fun dumping the ingredients into the food processor and making it "pulse". They competently brought the dough together with a wooden spoon and patted (perhaps a bit too overzealously) the dough into the pan. It was so quick to put together -- ten minutes tops. And only took 40 minutes more to bake. A wonderfully, homemade bread in less than an hour -- fantastic! We baked two separate loaves, in separate batches to be sure that the recipe was foolproof. To our delight, both loaves were perfect! They were golden, toasty, nutty, and had just the slightest hint of sweetness. I enjoyed a slice, slathered with butter of course, and then another, and another... The bread is said to keep for weeks when wrapped tightly, but if your family is anything like mine, it won't make it past the dinner table.
An Irish friend shared with me recently the fact that the American St. Patrick's day is yet another example of how our country goes over-the-top with customs and holidays brought over from other lands -- that Leprechaun mania, green beer, corned-beef and cabbage, and pinching people who forgot to wear green grew more out of our own immigrant culture and American commercialism, than as a true reflection of native Irish culture. She assured me, however, that Irish Soda Bread is the real deal. So, while I have just as much fun as the next guy on Main Street U.S.A. setting Leprechaun traps with the kids, putting together a cute green ensemble on 3/17 and stinking up my house with a bubbling pot o' corned beef, I'm also happy to be sharing a culinary experience with my children that is a bit more authentic.
I hope you'll give this recipe a try for your next St. Patrick's Day celebration.
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