My kitchen has been heavy with the smell of boiling fruit and sugar this past week. Damsons, apples and plums from the garden have been processed into jams, jellies, chutneys and preserves in haste. Since the stormy weather has knocked all the ripe fruit from the trees in one fell swoop, the task of preserving for the long winter ahead has to be done in a hurry. These autumnal treasures deserve something special to spread them on and the best thing for this job is the beloved soda bread.
There are a lot of Irish soda bread recipes, but reassuringly, they are all quite similar. The ingredients in a traditional Irish soda bread are flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk. The brown soda bread is an every day staple, served with soup and other meals or alone but always with lashings of butter. The white soda is the more refined version and often contains a handful of raisins.
400g plain flour
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
2 handfuls of raisins (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 230C/gas 8.
2. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in most of the buttermilk (leaving about 60ml in the measuring jug), at this stage add in the raisins if using. Using one hand with your fingers splayed (or two knives), bring the flour and liquid together, adding more buttermilk if necessary. Do not knead the mixture or it will become heavy. The dough should be soft but not too wet and sticky, but with the minimum amount of handling.
3. When the dough comes together, turn onto a floured work surface and bring together a little more. Pat the dough into a round about 4cm deep and cut a deep cross in the top.
4. Place the dough onto a baking tray and bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 200C/gas 6 and bake for a further 30. When ready, the loaf will be browned and will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the base.
5. Cool on a wire rack.
The cuts in the top of the bread are as much a part of Irish culture as the bread itself, in olden times (Ireland being a Catholic country of long standing) the crossing of the breads was traditionally giving thanks and to 'let the devil out of the bread', but the cross on the top is not just ornamental, it is important as it allows the heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the bread, helping it cook evenly.
It's true that soda bread dries out quickly after slicing, but it makes fantastic toast the next day. An Irish soda bread base is hugely versatile also, great for making flavoured breads, with cheese, herbs, olives, roast cherry tomatoes, red onion or garlic. But I always think it is best eaten freshly-baked and warm or toasted, slathered liberally with butter and smothered in homemade jam, of which I now have plenty.