Traditional Irish soda bread was probably first baked around 1840, a few years after baking soda was introduced to the island. It was made with whole wheat flour, little or no sugar, a teaspoon of baking soda, some salt and sour milk. It was a bread to dip into your tea or soup, something that also went well with boiled potatoes or cabbage and, if you were lucky, a slab of cheese or a piece of bacon or fish.
Today, many recipes for Irish soda bread include raisins or other dried fruits. In the nineteenth century dried fruits would have been an expensive addition to the bread. They were probably reserved for holidays or other occasions when housewives wanted to make a special treat for their families. Besides adding flavor, the fruit also helps keep the bread moist for a longer period.
However, this bread tastes so good that it seldom lasts more than a day or two. I think it tastes better slightly warm, so we like to pop it into the toaster or microwave for a few seconds before slathering on the butter.
1 cup raisins
1/3 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1/2 tsp. brandy
1/2 tsp. port wine
1/2 tsp. water
4 cups all-purpose flour plus a little more to sprinkle on the loaf
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup butter
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
Start by washing your hands and plumping the fruit. Put the raisins and dried cherries or cranberries into a microwavable bowl or measuring cup. Add about a half teaspoon each of brandy, port wine and water. Cover and microwave on high for twenty seconds, then stir the fruit and microwave another twenty seconds. Repeat one more time and let the fruit cool. If you see liquid on the bottom of the container, stir the fruit until the liquid has been absorbed.
Melt the butter and set it aside to cool to a warm room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Sift the flour, baking powder, soda, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl. Stir the fruit into the dry ingredients, making sure that they are evenly distributed.
Beat the eggs in a small bowl until they are lemon colored. Set aside a tablespoon of the beaten egg in a small bowl. Beat a cup of buttermilk into the eggs, then beat in the butter.
Stir the liquid ingredients into the dry mixture. This will take a minute or two until all the flour mixture has been moistened. Using your hands, gently work the dough for a few seconds and shape it into a ball.
Put the ball on the parchment paper and paint the surface with the beaten egg reserved in the cup. Sprinkle a little flour over the surface and use a sharp knife to cut a half-inch-deep cross on top of the loaf.
Bake on the center shelf of the oven for forty-five to fifty-five minutes until the loaf is a golden brown. The bread will be done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf registers 190º.
NOTES: Do not knead the dough. Just form it into a ball as if you were making a big meatball. Some people like this soda bread with jam or jelly, but I really prefer only good butter.