Bensonhurst Kitchen: Irish Soda Bread

This is not a traditional Irish Soda Bread.

The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread has a very interesting (seriously!) and informative website. And right at the top of their home page is an angry diatribe against the heartless, sugary wench that is today’s sweet, raisin-filled soda bread.

See, beginning in the mid 19th century there was this thing called the Great Famine – otherwise known as the Irish Potato Famine. People on the Emerald Isle were starving – literally dying of starvation.

Around the same time, the use of bicarbonate of soda (Bread Soda) as a leavening agent was slowly gaining popularity in Ireland – particularly to work with the “soft” wheat grown there.

The original soda bread was exactly that – bread, not the dried fruit cake it’s purported to be today!

Many Irish men and women left for the United States during this time, in what was the first major wave of immigration native-born Americans – and New Yorkers – had ever seen.

It may come as a shock, but the Irish who left Ireland during the Famine years probably didn’t bring a recipe for Irish Soda Bread with them. During those times, newfangled ingredients invented by chemists often took decades to catch on – not to mention that it would take even longer because food was so scarce.

So for the most part, Irish soda bread became popular in Ireland after the Famine. The phrase “Irish Soda Bread” didn’t actually show up in Irish-American cookbooks until the 1930s.

Don’t worry, Colleen has managed to strike a balance between soda bread that’s well… bread, and the sweet dessert cake we know and love today. Oh, she used raisins. And sugar – but just enough to curb the strong soda taste. What she did not use were eggs, which would just not be in the spirit of this spartan yet scrumptious bread/cake.

The end result is a hearty bread which the baking soda lends a wonderful tongue stimulating taste and texture to.

But enough with all the blarney! Here’s a soda bread you can be proud of. While it falls somewhat short of tradition, you probably won’t notice as you drink your green beer while wearing that plastic green derby hat made in China.

Besides, is fearr Gaeilge briste, na Bearla cliste.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.


Colleen’s Irish Soda Bread

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons solid shortening
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2/3 cup raisins
1 cup buttermilk


Preheat oven to 375 degrees

In a bowl sift together flour, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and sugar.

Using your hands or a pastry blender mix shortening into flour mixture until it’s the consistency of small peas.

Stir in the raisins & caraway seeds.

Gradually stir in buttermilk 1/3 cup at a time.

Knead the dough for 1 to 2 minutes.

Shape dough into a round loaf and place on a lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet.

Cut an X on to the top and over the sides of the loaf.

Bake 40-45 minutes or until bread is golden brown and passes the toothpick test.

TIP: Another way to tell your soda bread is done — it will sound hollow when you tap it.

Recipe and tips by Colleen. Photos by Colleen and Joe.


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