I like corned beef and cabbage. Really, I do. Itʼs a hearty dish thatʼs just right for the raw, grey days that typify the middle of March, when millions of people overpay for it at St. Patrickʼs Day brunches across the United States.
As a “traditional” Irish dish, though, it suffers from a fatal flaw: corned beef isnʼt generally eaten in Ireland. As best anyone can figure, itʼs a distinctly Irish-American phenomenon, a cheap substitute for the fresh back bacon (or “Canadian bacon,” to most Americans) that new Irish arrivals yearned for during Americaʼs great 19th century era of European immigration.
Fortunately, whatʼs perhaps the second most famous Irish cuisine encountered in America at this time of year is, in fact, traditional: soda bread.
I was raised on the soda bread that my mother baked—and still bakes, Iʼm pleased to say—almost every weekend. Freshly made, sliced, and liberally covered with butter melting from the ovenʼs lingering warmth, it is the first dish that I hope awaits me if Iʼm fortunate enough to make it to Heaven.
This recipe dates back at least to my great-grandmother, which puts it in the north of County Galway around the turn of the last century. My grandmother learned the recipe, and my mother, in turn, learned it from her before moving to the United States in the early 1960s. Iʼm pleased to share it with you.
Irish Soda Bread
3 cups all-purpose flour *
½ to ¾ cup sugar, depending how sweet youʼd like (I recommend going for it!)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 level teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 or 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds (Donʼt skip these! They are crucial to the flavor.)
2 tablespoons of shortening or sour cream
2 eggs (egg substitute also works fine)
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup raisins
Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees.
Mix the dry ingredients and the shortening with your fingers. Make a well in the middle of the bowl of mixture when youʼre done.
Mix the eggs and buttermilk and pour them into the well.
Stir thoroughly with a fork.
Drop the completed bread mixture into a greased baking dish.
Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes. The crust should be a golden brown color.
Test with a knife or skewer, which should come out clean.
Serve with either tea (sweetened, with milk—I recommend Barryʼs) or a pint of stout. Guinness is a natural choice for the latter, but if you havenʼt tried its chief Irish competitors, Murphyʼs and Beamish, you ought to. For a local spin on the meal, you can also try OʼReillyʼs Stout from Pottstown-based Sly Fox Brewery.