Several years ago, I had the opportunity to travel with First Lady Karen Baldacci on an economic trade mission to Ireland. The countryside was beautiful, the people generous and friendly, but what I enjoyed most of all was the food. I found that the cuisines of Maine and Ireland share many common themes, with ingredients centered around those harvested and produced by local fisheries and family farms.
What intrigued me most was their bread; simple, plain, wholesome and perfect for sopping up gravies and sauces. Unlike Maine, the wheat that prospers in Ireland’s more moderate climate is softer than the hard winter and spring wheats that flourish in Aroostook County.
Bread bakers recognize that hard wheat, with more gluten and a higher protein content, is needed to make a dough that responds well to yeast. The typical Irish country breads, “soda breads”, were leavened with bicarbonate of soda, a.k.a. baking soda. For a long time, most bread in Ireland was soda bread; “bakery bread” was only available in big cities.
Traditional Irish soda bread recipes use soft brown (whole wheat) flour, combined with buttermilk or sour milk, and baking soda. This recipe version sometimes known as “spotted dog”, includes fruit, seeds, butter and eggs. This savory bread, has a fine crumb and delicate texture; delicious when spread with lots of sweet butter and marmalade.
Irish Soda Bread
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 cup whole-wheat flour plus more for shaping
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1/3 cup sesame seeds
- 1/3 cup sunflower seeds
- 1/3 cup raisins plumped in hot water
- 1 egg
- 1¾ cups buttermilk
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter a cookie pan or 10-inch cake pan.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt and sugar. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in the butter until well incorporated. (A food processor works well for this also). Stir in the sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and raisins. In a 2 cup measure, whisk together the egg and buttermilk. Add to the dry ingredients and stir.
- Turn the mixture out onto a well-floured surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with flour. Using a dough scraper, shape the dough into a 10-inch circle and transfer to the baking pan. The dough will be very soft, and the loaf will look rustic. Mark the top with a cross-shaped indentation. Bake in the center of the oven until the bread is well browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, 35 – 45 minutes. Let cool on a rack. To serve, cut into quarters and slice the quarters with a sharp bread knife. Yield: 16 or more slices