Several summers ago, while on a family vacation to Ireland, I tried to buy soda bread, but could find none.
I searched tea houses, bakeries and pubs and was offered loaves of brown bread, scones and griddle cakes. "Soda bread is made in the home," a server at Bewley's tea house in Dublin informed me. "Why pay good money for bread that tastes best warm from the oven and that takes less time to make than it does to drive to the store?" she asked.
According to Irish cooking authority Darina Allen, soda bread was created to make quick use of soured milk in the years before refrigeration. These days, fresh buttermilk does the trick. Allen remembers her mother baking soda bread in the pot oven, or bastible, over an open fire and suggests using a heavy cast iron skillet to achieve the same dense golden crust and tender interior.
Traditional recipes make a "lean" dough for a very plain loaf. When you add butter, honey or treacle, along with caraway seeds and raisins, it's called Spotted Dog. (Spotted is for the raisins; "dog" is slang for dough.) This is a loaf for special occasions — Sundays after church and high holy feast days, like St. Patrick's.
Today's recipe, inspired by Allen's book "Forgotten Skills of Cooking," uses a blend of Kernza flour, ground from the perennial wheat grass Kernza. Its flour has a nutty, sweet, toasty flavor that's close to Irish wholemeal flour. Find it at Lakewinds Coops (lakewinds.coop) or online from Perennial Pantry (perennial-pantry.com). You can substitute whole wheat flour, if you wish, although Kernza's texture is a bit rougher.
I've added a little butter and honey to make it less "plain." You might work raisins and caraway seeds into the dough for the Spotted Dog variation. Enjoy this bread warm from the oven with a thick smear of Irish butter or a hunk of sharp Irish Cheddar. After a day or two, it's great toasted and spread with tart orange marmalade or currant jam.
Spotted Dog (or Rich Soda Bread)
Makes one 7-inch round loaf.
Note: This loaf calls for Kernza flour, a nutty, sweet flour close in taste to Irish wholemeal flour, but whole wheat flour works well, too. The oats add texture and flavor. This makes a wet, sticky batter-like dough that bakes up into a moist, tender loaf. To make it a "spotted dog," work 1/4 cup of raisins and 1 tablespoon of caraway seeds into the dough just before turning onto the baking sheet. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour, plus a little more for sprinkling
• 1 c. Kernza or whole wheat flour (see Note)
• 1/2 c. old fashioned rolled oats
• 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/4 c. (4 tbsp.) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
• 1 1/3 c. buttermilk or plain yogurt (not Greek-style)
• 1 tbsp. honey
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly sprinkle flour over a baking sheet or cast iron skillet.
Whisk together the flours, oats, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and toss to coat with the flour, then use your fingertips to work it into a coarse meal. In a small dish, stir together the buttermilk or yogurt and honey, then add the mixture to the dough and stir until it is evenly moistened but still lumpy.
Using floured hands, form the dough into a ball and pat out into a 7-inch round on the floured baking sheet or cast iron skillet. Cut a shallow X in the top of the loaf with a sharp knife.
Bake the bread until golden and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool slightly on a rack before slicing.
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.