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.

Gladys Salter’s Brown Sugar Cookies

According to my sister Patsy, my mother would have enjoyed coffee and cookies or whatever else was available when she visited Gladys Salter at her home a short distance east of Hayward off Highway B. According to my sister Barbara, “Gladys was a tiny lady, didn’t like social events and lots of people around, but she loved Mom and got along well with Patsy” who would take her to the Winter Greenhouse every spring where she bought plants for her garden.

My mother must have enjoyed these cookies, since she copied out the recipe. Patsy remembers that they were drop cookies made with a sticky batter.

The recipe is written on a two-by-four-inch scrap of paper cut from an office form. The yellowed paper is almost brown, which seems appropriate for a brown sugar cookie recipe. The scrap contains only part of the original form. All that remains of “WHILE YOU WERE OUT” is the “OUT,” but the spaces to record the important information are still there: “FROM,” “TO,” an address and phone number.

The complete form must have been designed to make it simple for telephone receptionists to assist the sales staff, since there are several boxes below the names, among them “REPORT AS BUSINESS OF,” “RECEIVED” and “REORDER” and “PASSED.” If a customer were calling to reorder a product, the slip could be forwarded to a shipping clerk who would presumably fill the order and pass the form to the sales representative.

Gladys’s recipe survives because people still used scratch paper when my mother wrote it down. Today, with automated office telephone systems, there are no note pads or even receptionists. Recipes are exchanged via email, but I wonder if, fifty years from now, you will be able to find an email sent today.

Like many recipes that my mother and her friends exchanged, there are no instructions on how to actually make the cookies beyond the phrase about dissolving the soda in hot water. That note may have been added because dry ingredients are more commonly sifted into the liquids. Homemakers like my mother knew how to make cookies so instructions were not really needed, but maybe there simply wasn’t room to include them on the little scrap of paper.

If you follow what I did and don’t overbake them, you will end up with a nice chewy snack or dessert.

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup lardBrown Sugar Cookies
3 large eggs or 4 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 1 T boiling water
3 – 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup walnuts
1 cup raisins plus 1 tsp. flour

PROCEDURE:

Cream the sugar with the butter and lard until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs or egg yolks one at a time until they are thoroughly combined, then beat in the vanilla and dissolved soda.

Preheat the oven to 350º and grease two baking sheets.

Put two cups of flour into a sifter with the flour, baking powder and salt and sift the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture by thirds. Stir thoroughly after each addition. Sift additional flour into the batter until you have a firm but not dry batter.

Mix the walnuts and raisins together with a teaspoon of flour and fold them into the batter.

Using two teaspoons, drop heaping teaspoonfuls (about a tablespoon) of batter two inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake ten to twelve minutes until the cookies are browned on the edges. Let the cookies cool two or three minutes on the cookie sheets before transferring them to wax paper to finish cooling.

NOTES: Quite a few of my mother’s recipes give the option of using egg yolks instead of whole eggs. Recipes for seven minute frosting and meringues, for instance, use lots of egg whites, so egg yolks were often available. If you are using only egg yolks, you may need less flour. Be careful to add it in smaller quantities as the batter begins to get stiff.