Baking for Bookworms: Irish Soda Bread from Alice McDermott’s Someone

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Alice McDermott’s book follows the life of an Irish immigrant in all its stirring little moments and complexities. It’s a quiet book that is definitely worth a read. There is plenty of food mentioned in the novel, but I really liked this moment between Marie, the narrator, and her mother where her mother tries to impart a little bit of cultural wisdom onto her daughter who has hitherto been resisting with all her might:

 

“ ‘It is time,’ my mother said, ‘that you learn a few things.’

On the narrow, corrugated tin of the drain board beside the sink, there was the flour bin and a bottle of buttermilk, and a tin of caraway seeds. On the small table beneath the window, a bowl and a spoon and the measuring cup. There was as well a narrow card on which she had written in her careful hand the recipe for soda bread.

It was time, my mother said, that I learned a few things about cooking.”   53

 

Cooking and learning to cook has a staggering amount of cultural and social meanings and connotations in this short passage. On one hand we have the ‘simple’ process of transformation—raw ingredients into something else. There’s also the transmission of culture to generations, the tension between youth and growing up, and the relations between a mother and her child. This all adds up to some pretty complex bread.

 

Luckily, this recipe is anything but complicated. It’s probably the easiest bread I’ve ever made. There’s no finicky yeast to deal with, there’s no waiting interminably for the bread to rise… you can make this bread in under an hour if you have all your ingredients ready.

 

Soda Bread recipe slightly adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction.

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¾ cups buttermilk (or 5 tsp of white/ apple cider vinegar or lemon juice with the milk filled up the rest of the way to the 1 ¾ cup mark, stir, and let sit five minutes—I like apple cider vinegar’s flavor in baked goods. You can also use this trick on non-dairy milks)
  • 1 egg
  • 4 ¼ cup flour (plus more for kneading and dusting)
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter, cold and cut in cubes
  • 1 cup raisins or other dried fruit (optional but very yummy)

 

Preheat oven to 425F. You can use a cast iron skillet, cake pan, or regular baking sheet for this bread—just grease it.

Mix the buttermilk (or sour milk) with the egg. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.

Using a pastry blender or your hands, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the raisins and mix.

Make a well in the center of the dry mixture, and pour in the liquid, stirring with a wooden spoon or a spatula. When the mixture becomes too stiff, turn it out on a floured surface and knead just until it comes together (about 30 seconds). You can add more flour if needed. Form into a rough ball and place in baking pan.

With a sharp knife, score a large X in the dough, which will help it cook evenly. Bake for 45 minutes or until dark and cooked through (if you think your bread is getting too dark, you can turn down the heat to 415F and continue cooking).

Let the bread cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning onto a cooling rack. This bread can be served warm or at room temperature and is great with all manner of things. It’ll dry out quickly so wrap any leftovers well or freeze them!

 

Is there a food you learned to cook with a family member? Let me know in the comments!

I remember making lots of cookies with my mom. Chocolate chip especially. I learned different baking recipes and techniques from virtually everyone in my family from my father’s waffles to my Nana’s challah.

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