Soda Bread for St. Patrick's

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Today, Tokyo, Boston, Dublin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Malta, the small Caribbean island of Montserrat, the International Space Station and countless other cities, villages and nations will host celebrations in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. What are we all celebrating? Irish resilience? Irish beer? The color green?

St Patrick’s Day began in 10th century Ireland as a high holy day of church service and family gatherings. Pubs were closed, but the Lenten prohibition against meat was lifted for the evening. The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1601 in a Spanish colony in what’s now St. Augustine, Fla. A century later, homesick Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City to their local pub, and as the power and influence of Irish-Americans grew throughout the 19th century, Boston, Savannah, Ga. New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago inaugurated their own parades.

It wasn’t until 1931 that Dublin hosted its first parade, granting a more public reprieve from the austerities of Lent. In 1996, the first nationwide St. Patrick’s Festival kicked off an annual three-day event showcasing Irish theater, literature, art, music, and revelry.

For many in the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the hybrid Irish-American identity: fealty to both the Irish homeland, and to the American way of individual liberty that has drawn so many to its shores. The spread of St. Paddy’s Day throughout the world is certainly due in part to the commercialization of holidays, but on a deeper level, perhaps it’s the Irish way of holding dear the memories and ways of home while braving new lands and cultures, that has made the celebration a worldwide phenomenon. After all, we each must find a way to live between the past and the present, feeding our nostalgia for home while facing the demands and uncertainties of the world we’re born to each day.


Beth and Kip


Beth here. I tried to buy soda bread in Ireland once, on a family vacation summers ago. The tea houses, bakeries, and pubs had plenty of brown bread, scones, and griddle cakes – but no soda bread.  A server at Bewley’s Tea House in Dublin politely informed this tourist that most Irish make their soda breads at home. “Why pay good money for bread that tastes best when it’s warm from the oven, and takes less time to make than it does to drive to the store?” she pointed out. 

According to Ireland’s best-known cook, Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, soda bread began in the years before refrigeration as a way to use soured milk. Today, we use buttermilk. Allen recalls her mother baking soda bread in the pot oven, or “bastible,” over an open fire. She recommends a heavy cast iron skillet to achieve the same dense, golden crust and tender interior of her mother’s loaves. 

Traditional recipes make a “lean” dough for a very plain loaf. You can add butter, honey or treacle, along with caraway seeds and raisins, for a variation called Spotted Dog (“Spotted” for the raisins; “Dog,” slang for dough). This is a loaf for special occasions – Sundays after church, and high holy feast days, like St. Patrick’s Day.

The recipe below is inspired by Darina’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking. I’ve added a little butter and honey, and the recipe works equally well for traditional soda bread and for Spotted Dog. Enjoy it warm from the oven with a spoonful of Irish butter, or a hunk of sharp Irish Cheddar. After a day or two, it’s best toasted and slathered with tart orange marmalade or currant jam.


Makes one 7-inch round loaf

This recipe relies on freshly-milled flour from Baker’s Field Flour (housed at Food Building), the closest to stone-ground Irish flour a Minnesota cook can get. The oats add texture and flavor. Expect the dough to be sticky like batter. It’ll bake into a moist, tender loaf. 

2-1/4 cups whole wheat flour, plus a little more for sprinkling

½ cup old fashioned rolled oats

1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup, 4 tablespoons, cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1-1/3 cups buttermilk or plain yogurt (not Greek-style)

1 tablespoon honey

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly sprinkle flour over a baking sheet or cast iron skillet.

Whisk together the flour, oats, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and toss to coat with the flour and then use your finger-tips to work it into a coarse meal. In a small dish, stir together the buttermilk and honey, then add this to the dough and stir until it is evenly moistened, but still lumpy.

Using floured hands, form the dough into a ball and pat out into a 7-inch round on the floured baking sheet or cast iron skillet. Cut a shallow X in the top of the loaf with a sharp knife. 

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the bread until golden. When you tap the bottom, it should sound hollow. Cool slightly on a rack before slicing. 

For Spotted Dog: Work ¼ cup of raisins and 1 tablespoon of caraway seeds into the dough just before turning onto the baking sheet or into the pan.

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