Soda Bread is Boring but Not Bad: The 17 Days of St. Patrick

Erin's found sweet ways to love Irish soda bread and scones.

One of my favorite all-time memories of Ireland involves food, if you can believe it. And one of my favorite all time food memories is the same one.

I was 17. I was living in Castlederg, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. The woman I refer to as my Irish mother, Mary Brigid Arkinson, is a phenomenal cook. I mean full Sunday dinners every day.

One afternoon I came flying down the stairs, well, because I was 17 and didn't do anything gracefully. It was a typical gray and damp day, no surprise.

My speed is relevant because I remember stopping abruptly as if I had sound effects, ka-toing! There I was in the kitchen with Mary B. She was lathering homemade, from-the-garden rhubarb preserves on just-out-of-the-oven scones. They were like warm, sweet biscuits on a yucky day.

I am salivating just remembering it.

Many scones have tried, but none match the quality of that grandma's kitchen. As they would say in Ireland, it was lovely.

That particular memory is about the scone. Its kissing cousin, soda bread, is also typically Irish.

The first time I made either was right here in Will County. Family friend Margie Plunk, a County Kerry native, invited us over for a lesson. I was with my older sister, Shenon.

It's a good thing I learned something that night, because I mangled mom's car on the Plunk's mailbox heading in. Turned out to be a very expensive lesson.

One thing I learned is that soda bread is round. We baked it in a cast iron skillet.

By the way, Margie makes great soda bread.

Another thing is that the round loaves have a cross marked on the top. If you're needing a little extra religion, you can read something into that, being a Catholic country, and all. But cookbooks reveal the cross is to promote even baking.

What makes soda bread and scones unusual is the leavening agent: baking soda instead of yeast. Don't tell my Irish brethren that I find the soda bread rather dry and bland. I'm a traitor, I know, for thinking the stuff is boring.

It's easy to jazz up scones with sugar, currants, berries or other razzle-dazzle ingredients. But soda bread? Nah.

I've read tons of magazines celebrating the joys and mysteries of the gourmet Irish soda bread. I've tried hundreds of samples. I've made it myself. I've experienced the authentic versions over there. And I'm here to tell ya, those articles are whack. The stuff is dry and boring. No way around it.

Just like you have to appreciate linen trousers for their winkle-tude, so do you have to appreciate soda bread for its boredom.

So once you know what to expect, eating soda bread can be quite a pleasant experience.

There are may ways to eat soda bread. For example, you can slice off a hunk and put it in your mouth. Or, you can lather it with Ireland's Kerry Gold pure butter. My mom toasts it. Jam helps. Great for breakfast with coffee. Even better with hot tea. Sometimes there are raisins in it. I don't like raisins, so that kind still bores me.

Soda bread even can be eaten with dinner to mop up the gravy.

Scones are pretty easy to find. And there are plenty of Chicagoland bakeries that offer soda bread. However, Shorewood residents can buy Irish soda bread this time of year at both Dominick's and Jewel. The cost is a couple bucks for a round loaf.

That's not nearly as expensive as the loaves we made at Margie's when I had to get mom's car repainted.

Another nice thing about getting the soda bread at these stores is that you can always pick up a jar of rhubarb preserves while you're there.

Just make sure you don't hit the mailbox on the way home.

Flora Dora March 10, 2011 at 12:38 PM
I am enjoying your tales of Ireland. My Irish grandmother taught me to make soda bread and her recipe beats any other I've tasted. She used both buttermilk and butter so right there it's moist and delicious. She also used rasins (too bad you don't like them) and sometimes caraway seeds (which I don't like). Soda bread with rasins is called "spotted dog" and my mother tried to find raisins with seeds - bigger and better!!! Cutting the deep cross helps the center to cook thru. May you have the luck of the Irish, Erin! D.E.
Erin Gallagher March 10, 2011 at 01:25 PM
If not luck, then at least blarney! Thanks, Dorothy for your regular comments. They are much appreciated.
tina March 12, 2011 at 07:37 PM
Sat down to a slice ( ok...3!) of my moms Irish bread this very moring, still hot from the oven. Hers is perfectly done with no need for butter or jam, and she uses rasins, no caraway seeds. I have tried Irish Soda Bread here and over in Ireland many times, and nothing beats hers! The other lovely bread is Brown Bread, oh I would give anything for that now. My mom doesnt make it, but her sister in law makes the best in the world. She is from County Clare, now at the homefarm in Kerry Ireland and I have made her recipie many times, not quite the same, but nice anyhow. Something about the butter in Ireland is beyond description, sigh.... Simple foods, prepared simply makes for a delicious and satifying meal in Ireland anytime.! Thanks for paying homage to my mother in this article, she is the best Irish cook in all of this land! Tina Plunk Quigley ps. I never took my mailbox when I was a young driver, but you did! LOL
Erin Gallagher March 12, 2011 at 10:56 PM
Tina, You're welcome. It's the least I could do since I never did replace her mailbox.


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