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If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then tradition is in the mouth of the eater. This is especially true when talking about Irish soda bread.
Some say it's a brown bread, while others swear that it should be white. Raisins have both defenders and blasphemers. Most recipes labeled "American-style" include eggs, sugar, butter, caraway and currants, resulting in a slice of what tastes more like cake than bread.
Here's the real kicker: Irish soda bread didn't come from Ireland, although the Emerald Isle certainly can claim credit for popularizing the rustic, economical bread.
The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread says that soda ash was in use by American Indians when European settlers arrived. When bicarbonate of soda was introduced in Ireland in the early 1800s, it enabled a bread to be baked in an iron pot over a fire, an advantage where ovens were not widely in use.
Bottom line: For most of us, tradition means the food with which we grew up. The great thing about soda bread is that it's easily adaptable to personal tastes because it contains just four main ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk.
You can shift the balance of white and whole wheat flour to your liking, add raisins or currants if you please -- even mix a few tablespoons of butter or sugar into the dough, to taste.
A lesson in simple chemistry
Soda bread dough comes together quickly, and that's by design. Here's the 15-second chemistry lesson: When soda, which is an alkaline, is moistened with buttermilk, which is an acid, it immediately begins producing bubbles of carbon dioxide.
The goal is to get the dough into a hot oven while the bubbles are still forming, trapping them inside the loaf. Mix too slow, and they'll move right on up out of the dough, disappearing like Brigadoon.
If you have a box of soda that's been sitting for who knows how long on your shelf, you can easily test its strength by stirring a 1/2 teaspoon into a small dish of vinegar. It should bubble up immediately.
Baking tips for all
Here are a few tips for successful soda bread: Make sure to whisk the baking soda and salt into the flour before adding the buttermilk. Pockets of soda in a finished loaf can taste bitter and cause small brown spots on the crust.
If you want to add raisins, making a version the Irish call Spotted Dog, stir them into the flour; this helps keep them from sinking to the bottom of the loaf.
Buttermilk is the liquid of choice, but if you're fresh out, stir 2 tablespoons of white vinegar or lemon juice into a scant 2 cups of milk and let set for 5 minutes.
Once the liquid is added to the flour, stir quickly but thoroughly, making sure all the flour is moistened. You don't want to work soda-based doughs too much or they'll develop a tough texture.
Once you scrape the dough onto a floured surface, knead only briefly, then divide the dough in half and shape each piece into a round. Place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly.
Legends aplenty from across the pond
Now here is where the Irish lore truly comes into play. Each round needs a deep X cut in the top, using a sharp paring knife and cutting about 1/2-inch deep.
This, legend says, lets the devil out, although others say it's to let the fairies escape. In any case, it makes an attractive loaf, while also ensuring that the oven's heat penetrates the moist dough.
A final tip to make sure the bread is baked through: Tap the loaf on the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it's done. If you hear a dull thump, put it back in the oven for another 5 minutes and test again.
Loaves slice best after they've been allowed to cool a bit, but soda bread is best eaten soon after it's baked.
Still, should you have some left, it makes wonderful toast the next morning. (You might even put some aside for that purpose.)
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185