Fruited Irish Soda Bread

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. 

INGREDIENTS:

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

PROCEDURE:

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.

Rich’s Dropped Scones

I ate my first scone in either Oxford or Cambridge, England, with a cup of tea like a proper English gentleman. It was the summer of 1966, and I was enjoying a short vacation after my year of studies in Germany. Jerri and her friend Marilyn met me in London, and we spent time together in London, Oxford and Cambridge.

The Bodleian Library at Oxford and the University Library at Cambridge let me use their rare book rooms for a day while Jerri and Marilyn toured the cities. I think it fair to say that we liked Cambridge better than Oxford. Cambridge had more green space, which appealed to us midwesterners. We ate picnic lunches in the shade on the green and watched the crews practice on the Cam.

We thought that it was quaintly English to have horses grazing freely on the green among students and visitors until a large brown animal grabbed Jerri’s lunch bag and proceeded to eat her banana. Jerri was not the only victim. We learned from other picnickers with mangled lunch bags that the horses also liked apples and oranges.

I am not certain how the horses opened the lunch bags. I think that they just grabbed the bags in their big horsey teeth and smashed them on the ground until they found whatever it was that smelled good. A student explained that the horses would not take the bag from your hands, so our sandwiches survived our second day on the green as we traded stares with several hungry horses trying to catch us off guard.

Cambridge sticks in my memory for another reason. Finding a place to stay was a challenge. All the hotels were full, but the tourist information office helped us locate a room in a private bed and breakfast. I was traveling with two attractive young women, and our landlady, Mrs. Chillingsworth, almost refused to rent to the three of us. She looked like a character from a Dickens novel with a cold, suspicious eye and clearly suspected that we were hippies planning an orgy. We pleaded, and she finally relented after I promised to sleep on the floor.

The ladies went to bed. I went out to a pub filled with students who welcomed their “cousin” from the “colonies” and approved of my taste for two pints of bitter before I walked back to Mrs. Chillingsworth’s where I collapsed on the carpet.

Every afternoon we had tea and scones. The tea was strong, the cream was real and the scones were delicious. In the past fifty years, scones have become popular around the world. You can even buy them in New Richmond. A search on the Internet for “scone recipes” brings up over 100,000 pages, which tells me that lots of people are also making these biscuits or cakes at home today.

Our friend Rich likes them and decided he would make his own. He took ideas from several recipes he found on the Web to come up with his version. He uses 2% milk instead of cream to make a soft dough, adds dried cherries and drops the dough on a cookie sheet as if he were making dropped baking powder biscuits. His scones are tender and delicious. Here is how to make them.

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (8 T) unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup milk
1/3 cup dried cherries

PROCEDURE:

Preheat the oven to 400º. Blend the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Chop the butter into small pieces and mix them with the flour. Use a pastry blender or your fingers to cut the butter into the flour until it looks like coarse cornmeal.

Use a fork to blend the sugar with the flour and then stir in the milk until you have a stiff dough. Fold in the cherries. Be careful not to stir the dough too much.

Using a tablespoon and fork, drop eight or nine globs of dough on an ungreased cookie sheet. Shape the globs if necessary so they look nice to you. Sprinkle the scones with a little sugar and bake them about fifteen minutes or until they turn lightly brown.

NOTES: If you are using salted butter, use only a quarter teaspoon of salt. You can substitute currants, dried cranberries or raisins for the dried cherries but I strongly recommend the cherries. Rich uses 2% milk while I use 1%, but both make scones that are tender and delicious.