Irish Soda Bread for St. Patrick’s Day

Irish soda bread is one of my favorite baked goods and one of my favorite traditions in baking. Just as Christmas cookies belong to Christmas, Irish soda bread belongs to St. Patrick’s Day. I bake it once per year. If you work with me, you’ll probably get a slice of bread every year. My mom would bake one or two loaves per year and we girls would gobble it up with breakfast, or as a snack, or as dessert. I recall having a hard time getting the batter to stick entirely. It took quite a few years of practice before mixing the ingredients wasn’t an entire arm workout. Practice makes perfect.

What is the origin of Irish soda bread? Soda bread is a traditional bread baked in poorer countries, and was very common during the Irish potato famine. The Irish didn’t invent it, but they’re known for it. The traditional recipe calls for basic ingredients: flour, baking soda, soured milk, and salt. The baking soda took the place of yeast. Loaves were baked on the griddle of an open hearth. The traditional cross in the loaf made before baking was to ward off the devil and protect the household. (Read more here.)

The recipe that my mother and grandmother passed on to us girls is not exactly traditional. Our recipe calls for sour cream, baking powder, sugar, and raisins. However, it’s tradition to me.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  

Grandma’s Pyrex Mixing Bowls

Think of one small object in your house to which you are emotionally attached, something that you love for some intangible reason, something that would seem not valuable and ordinary to most any one else. Can you identify and describe why that object is important to you? Why did you save it in the first place, and what keeps you from tossing it with the next yard sale or round of spring cleaning? If you are like me, you have many objects that fall into that category.

I’m not a packrat. I don’t like clutter or a messy house and I have periodic cleaning, recycling, give-away episodes; but, I’ll just say it: I like my stuff. Of course, by “stuff” I refer to sentimental objects, furniture hand-me-downs from family members, picture frames, books, blankets, dinnerware. I could never be someone who lives in a minimalist or tiny house with barely any belongings to her name. These objects – this stuff – holds memories and plays a role in making a house a home. I’m a sentimental fool when it comes to random objects, particularly those given to me by grandparents.

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Grandma's three Pyrex bowls passed on to me.

My grandmother was not so much a fan of stuff, sentimental or otherwise, and she saved little. She never stopped moving forward, but occasionally I’d be lucky enough to hear a memory. I could never completely understand her logic for saving what she did, but with the stories I knew, I could piece together the objects around the house. I know that what I have of my grandmother’s was significant to her, even if I don’t know the reason. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have kept it. What I have of my grandmother’s is important to me. I can feel a connection to those family heirlooms that I love, especially those that I can incorporate into in my everyday life and my home.

Cooking is not my forte, but I do love to bake and experiment with baking (within reason). Kitchenware has always been a favorite household category of mine, particularly mixing bowls. Needless to say, when my mom gave me three Pyrex mixing bowls from Grandma’s house, I was thrilled. These three bowls are in great condition and feel worn, loved and used from decades of baking. Oddly enough, I can’t remember Grandma using these bowls when I was around, but she loved baking oatmeal raisin cookies for me when I was in college. Who wouldn’t love to receive a tin of homemade cookies from Grandma? Delicious. Maybe she didn’t use these bowls to make the cookies for me, but I have a hunch that at some point, they held cookie dough.

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Sitting pretty on my (non-functioning) ca. 1930 Hardwick stove.

There is something about Pyrex that makes me happy while I’m baking.
Did you know that Pyrex is in vogue? Before researching the date on these bowls, I had no idea how much people love Pyrex. There are entire websites dedicated to the patterns, dates, collections, buying and selling of Pyrex bowls. Based on my research, these bowls are 1940s Pyrex mixing bowls, noted as from the solid color set. However, I have a feeling that the bowls are mismatched from more than one set.

If they are from the 1940s, perhaps these bowls were a wedding shower gift to my grandmother or something she purchased as a newlywed. That is my guess as to why she saved them.

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An alternative view of their shape.

I prefer to use a wooden spoon with my Pyrex bowls. As I bake, I remember Grandma fondly. These Pyrex bowls are comforting to me. Grandma kept these for a reason, and I intend to keep them and bake with them for as long as I am able – perhaps with my own grandchildren someday.

For what reasons do you save stuff? What inconsequential objects do you love?

Irish Soda Bread

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And it’s finally the time of year for Irish soda bread. According to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, if you think you’re eating “traditional” Irish soda bread, you’re probably not. And if it has raisins, then it’s definitely not “soda bread.” And soda bread made only date to the mid 1900s. The original, traditional recipes contain four ingredients: flour, baking soda, buttermilk, and salt (nothing else)!  It certainly does not include yeast.

While the Society aims to provide everyone with the truth about traditional recipes, it is not insinuating that people are making soda bread improperly. They say that a family tradition is a tradition, that recipe is worth being passed down generations. Simply, do not claim that your modern recipe is a true traditional cultural recipe.

With that said, some modern recipes are delicious!  Everyone is allowed to modify recipes. My family tradition (not traditional to Ireland) includes sour cream and cream of tartar and lots of raisins. My great-aunt passed down the recipe to my mom, and that’s what we use and will keep using. This year I tried some variations (muffins and no raisins) but also stuck with my favorite recipe and method.

Soda bread goes well with a bit of butter (though it’s just as good plain) and nice cup of coffee. Enjoy!

Soda bread muffins anyone? (Paper muffin cup not recommended.)

Soda bread that ended up looking like a clover.

Soda bread in a cast iron pan, my family's tradition.

Homemade Bread

Preserving the old ways from being used
Protecting the new ways for me and you
What more can we do

The Kinks – “The Village Green Preservation Society”


Historic preservation can play many angles because its definitions vary according to individuals and organizations. There tends to be no limit on its tangential factors, something that makes preservation ideals understandable and applicable to anyone. This might be more apparent to me since moving to Vermont – I haven’t quite decided yet. However, consider Jennifer Parson’s article from the latest PiP Newsletter which talked about preservation in the sense of agricultural preservation, not like preserving vegetables for the winter, but continuing to use heirloom seeds, thus preserving the variety of agriculture, whether vegetables, fruit, or larger crops.

Vermonters* seem to take pride in self sufficiency and of course, environmental friendliness (one bumper sticker claims Vermont as being green before green was cool). There’s definitely a different vibe in Vermont. Or maybe this vibe is everywhere now and I’ve only noticed it here. That’s sort of beside the point. People I have met here, including the above mentioned Jen Parsons, have inspired me to take on more traditional tasks as hobbies. One recent endeavor is bread making. There is nothing better than fresh bread, right? And in the vein of finding ways to save money, attempting to not support giant food distribution companies, and figuring out how to avoid preservatives of our current food supply, bread seemed like an easy first step. I also love to bake.

Bread and preservation, huh? Really? Yes, it’s relevant. No, I’m not using a historic recipe (unless Fannie Farmer counts!) or an old oven of any sort. Learning to bake bread is easiest by attempting regular white bread. But something about it is just so satisfying. Perhaps it’s kneading the dough or considering that maybe one day I will not have to grocery store packaged bread. It’s just a basic food source that people have been making and eating for centuries. And the house I live in is old enough that many owners and tenants have probably made bread by hand more than a few times.

My very first loaf of homemade bread. It might not look like anything special, but it was surprisingly delicious!

I think part of appreciating historic preservation in all of its form comes not only from studying dwellings and the surroundings and reading the environment, but by participating in history in some manner. And the process of bread making: mixing ingredients, letting the dough rise for hours (in some recipes), kneading the dough, watching it bake, smelling the delicious scent of fresh made bread, and sharing it can connect you to everyone in history. So by learning to make homemade bread, I feel as though I can pass on a time honored tradition, and that has immense value on its own.

Bread loaf #4. Still not impressive looking, but tasted great.

Bread loaf #4. Still not impressive looking, but tasted great.

I do not expect to be a great bread baker anytime in the near future, but it's sure fun to practice.

Additionally, since beginning this learning process of bread making, I have discovered that many friends also bake their own bread – perhaps there is a resurgence of bread making. What a pleasant discovery! I wonder what else people are producing on their own in small attempt at self sufficiency (or health or economics).

*Disclaimer: I cannot yet claim to be a Vermonter. Actually, being named a true Vermonter takes about seven generations so there goes my chance. Still, I love Vermont, even if I’m labeled a “flatlander” or “white plater.”