After reveling in Chicago's extended St. Patrick's Day festivities over the past few days, I wanted to share one ritual that isn't green, nor does it involve consuming a regrettable amount of beverages. My favorite holiday ritual is the baking of Irish soda bread, a simple, almost savory addition to just about any meal. This year, I decided to take my time and bake it from scratch. This scone-like bread is unique in that it only takes about 45 minutes to make, no yeast, no eggs involved. Easy enough to make me wonder why I only eat it once a year.
While the addition of buttermilk is the defining characteristic of soda bread, the pungeant fermented cream seemingly makes up for any other standard wet ingredients and creating a dense dough in no time. Yet, that's not the trick here. And while raisins or currants are often a sweetening element in Americanized soda bread, purists claim this makes the recipe the European 'spotted dick' instead. In Ireland, true soda bread was a brownish table bread made from baking 'soda', buttermilk, flour, etc. Rather dull. Dried fruits were considered a luxury item originally.
Still again, I'd argue raisins are delightful and I will always include them to please my party guests' tastes, but the true element I can't live without is the caraway seed. These tiny, buglike seeds provide the heavenly aroma of soda bread that whets my appetite even before the first butter-slathered hunk even enters my mouth. The scent is as rich as a folkloric tale of Irish ancentry and might be as heady as a Guinness stout in my book. Almost.
Caraway seeds, or actually fruits, are products of the biennial herb of the parsley family (also sometimes known as the Persian cumin plant). They are tapered on each end and have deep ridges throughout the length of their bodies. Caraway seeds are a defining characteristic of authentic rye breads and help make cheeses like havarti something memorable.
Thought to be the spice used longer than any other in Euroupe, Holland remains the largest producer of caraway fruit today. The Essential oils in caraway fruits contribute that anise-like aroma that is so savory it can't be replicated. The oils (like limonene) are known for yeast-killing attributes, which interestingly enough, makes for denser breads and might be why soda bread doesn't require any yeast in the first place.
To enhance the flavor of caraway seeds (or fruits if we are talking on a literal level now), add them in the last fifteen minutes of cooking. Try them in cabbage soups, krauts, cheeses, breads, pretty much anything that requires a deep, savory element. For dairy, you might want to try toasting them lightly first to enhace their flavors.
For my St. Paddy's treat, I used the recipe below:
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tbs sugar
6 tbs solid shortening (I stuck with the recommendation of Crisco, it maintains the color and is easy to mix in)
2 tsp caraway seeds (I tend to make these generous portions)
2/3 cup raisins (yellow or regular, also use as much or as little as you like here)
1 cup buttermilk
Sift the dry ingredients together, then add the shortening and combine with a pastry blender until crumbly. Add in raisins and caraways until thoroughly combined.
Add buttermilk 1/4 cup at a time until the dough is wet but not runny.
Position in a round on a greased baking sheet, hatch two deep lines in a cross down teh side (both for looks and traditionally, to ward off the any evil sprits!) Bake at 375 degrees for about 40-45 minutes
Slice and serve warm or cold with Kerrygold Irish butter.
Top O' the Morning to you!