Irish Soda Bread Bake-Off: American Version Is Distant Cousin Of The Real Thing

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Ed O'Dwyer fondly recalls eating Irish soda bread as a child. It was a simple recipe: flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk. Nothing fancy. But something happened to that bread in the U.S. Ed was surprised to see Irish soda breads with raisins soaked in Irish whiskey, or loaves with chocolate chips! So what is Irish soda bread? Ed O'Dwyer of the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread gives us the full history of the bread.

We decided to host an Irish soda bread bake-off, and had several colleagues submit their versions (most would make Ed O'Dwyer cringe!). Here & Now resident chef Kathy Gunst and Hugh McCrory, an Irishman living in the Boston area, judge our friendly competition.

Below, read all of the recipes, and the often-touching stories, of how they were passed from one cook to the next. The winning recipe was from Kathleen McKenna (#5 on this list).

#1 Johnny’s Daughter’s St. Paddy’s Day Jig

From WBUR's Clint Cavanaugh

(Jesse Costa)

2 1/2 cups flour (Pillsbury is preferred, of course)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. soda
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 cup butter (yes, real butter) at room temp
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup pale ale
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup currants
2 tsp. caraway seeds, if you like caraway seeds
Splash of vanilla

Pre-heat your oven to 375°. Cream the butter and sugar together. Sift the dry ingredients and cut them into the butter-sugar with a fork, until they're well blended.  Add the egg and buttermilk and mix until the dry ingredients are well moistened.  Fold in raisins, currants and caraway. Pour batter into a buttered, 1/2 qt. casserole, drizzle the top with as much melted butter as you dare — the more the better. Bake for about 30 minutes at 375° and then about 10 more at 325°.

#2 Mrs. Murphy's Irish Soda Bread

From WBUR's Pat Kauffman

(Jesse Costa)
(photo by: Jesse Costa)

Pat's Note: This recipe comes from my dear friend Chris, a native of Newton Upper Falls, Mass. We’ve shared a few recipes through the years and, like so many other recipes, this came to Chris from a neighbor, who got it from another neighbor and so on.

It’s hard to tell exactly where the recipe originated, so it’s been dubbed “Mrs. Murphy’s Irish Soda Bread.” Murphy – it’s a good Irish name – so we’re sticking with it.

The recipe, simple with a good crumb, is just as an Irish Soda Bread should be.

In this recipe, I use organic cane sugar rather than white sugar for a slightly more caramel flavor. Add an extra dimension to this classic by adding a touch of lemon zest.

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter – diced
1 1/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 cups flour
2 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. buttermilk
3 eggs
1 cup raisins
(Optional – 1 tsp. grated lemon zest)

Preheat Oven to 325°
1. Mix butter and dry ingredients, including lemon zest if using, until it’s fully incorporated and resembles a crumble.
2. Lightly mix milk and eggs and add to crumble mixture
3. Add raisins and mix until fully incorporated
4. Fill a greased 9” round cake pan with mixture, smooth out the top and sprinkle with sugar
5. Bake at 325° for about 30 minutes or until tester comes out clean.
6. Cut into slices once bread is cool.

#3 Loretta LaCamera’s Irish Soda Bread

From WBUR's Sue McCrory

(Jesse Costa)
(photo by: Jesse Costa)

Sue's Note: The history of this recipe includes a lot of Italian names, but its origin is Irish, exclusively. It’s the recipe of Loretta Bernadette Lynch (100% Irish), who married an Italian named Paul LaCamera (no relation to the former GM of WBUR) and raised her family in Westwood, Mass.

Loretta LaCamera was a good friend of my mom, Corinne Spinale, who passed it down to me. It’s the only Irish soda bread recipe ever made at my house growing up, and it only got made for St. Patrick’s Day. Ironically, I’ve married a “real Irishman” but have never made him this bread.

PS: I just learned from Loretta’s son, Michael (my childhood friend), that his wife recently made the bread and sent it to his brother, who is currently serving in Iraq.

Note from Here & Now: We want to mention that Sue's husband, Hugh, was one of our celebrity judges in our bake-off. He didn't know he was judging his wife's bread on the air, and ended up giving it low marks for being too "exotic." But, on the way home, he couldn't stop sampling the bread, and told Sue, "I think this bread is growing on me." Nice save, Hugh!

4 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. caraway seeds
1/2 cup unsalted butter
scant 1 1/2 cups raisins
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1 egg
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tbsp. milk or cream

Sift together the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Stir in the caraway seeds. Cut the butter into the dry mixture until it looks like coarse cornmeal. Add the raisins. Combine the buttermilk, egg and baking soda. Stir into dry mixture until just moist. Turn onto a floured board and knead lightly until smooth. Place in a greased 9” pie plate. Brush with the milk or cream.

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 375° for 35 minutes. Reduce heat to 350° and continue baking for 25 minutes more or until done when tested with a toothpick. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a baking rack to complete the cooling.

#4 Traditional White Soda Bread

From The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread

(Jesse Costa)

4 cups (16 oz) of all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
14 oz. of buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 425°.  Lightly grease and flour a cake pan.

In a large bowl sieve and combine all the dry ingredients.

Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough.  Place on floured surface and lightly knead (too much allows the gas to escape).

Shape into a round flat shape in a round cake pan and cut a cross in the top of the dough.

Cover the pan with another pan and bake for 30 minutes (this simulates the bastible pot).  Remove cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes.

The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped so show it is done.

Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread moist.

#5 Mary Harrington’s Irish Bread

From Here & Now's Kathleen McKenna

(Jesse Costa)
(photo by: Jesse Costa)

Kathleen's Note: This recipe came to me via my mother via her mother, Mary Harrington, from County Cork. Of course, I’ve imagined that she carried this recipe with her when she came over as a teenager. But now I know this recipe has been "Americanized."

One taste, however, still brings me back to her kitchen in New Bedford, Mass. It’s late afternoon and we’re sitting at the table with a pot of tea and this delicious bread – mulling over the news or her beloved Red Sox.

3 1/3 cups sifted flour
6 tsp. baking powder
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter – cut up into pieces
1 cup raisins – (cooked in boiling water for 1 minute)
2 eggs
3/4 cups milk

Mix dry ingredients. Add cut up butter. Then add milk and eggs and stir with a wooden spoon, add raisins in last.

Once all the ingredients are blended, you should briefly knead the bread with some flour on your hands. And don't overwork the batter.

Bake in an 8" or 9" cake pan, lightly buttered. You can use cast iron instead, also buttered. Cook at 400° for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350° and cook for 30 minutes.

This segment aired on March 16, 2011.


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