Easy to Make for St. Patrick’s Day: Irish Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest

Irish-American Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Irish-American Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

All photos by Wendy Goodfriend

Back when I worked as a professional baker at La Farine in Rockridge, we made magnificent loaves of Irish soda bread--rich with butter, eggs, sugar, and raisins or even chopped dried apricots--which were quickly snapped up (and truly incredible fresh out of the oven).

The version that we made, and that you often see in this country, is more of an American version of the bread, rather than a true representation of what you might actually find in Ireland. Irish soda bread, or “brown soda bread” or “white soda bread,” is traditionally made with only 4 ingredients: flour (white or whole wheat), baking soda (hence the “soda” part of the name), buttermilk, and salt. It is a hearty quick bread--as opposed to a yeasted bread--that was made in cast iron pots and cooked over a fire, eliminating the need for an oven. The whole wheat version was more common, and the white version saved for special occasions. Even more special would be to add an egg to it.

Whether you are in America or Ireland, a telltale signature of the loaf is the cross that is cut into the top of the bread before baking. This helps it expand and cook in the thicker middle, but also has religious connotations. The cross part is pretty obvious, but another favorite meaning is that by cutting a cross into the top, it “lets the devil out of the bread.”

Nowadays you’ll find all sorts of variations: From the more commonplace raisin-studded or caraway seed-scented loaves to those with dark chocolate chunks, multigrain and seeds, or other dried fruits like apricots, figs, and cherries. Here, many recipes include butter, eggs, and sugar to varying degrees.

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This is one of my favorites. Dense and moist on the inside, crackly on the outside, and lightly sweet...it is the perfect vehicle for a slathering of Irish butter. Baking it in a cast-iron pan make me think it sort of takes it back to its roots. Plus it just looks really cool.

Irish-American Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Irish-American Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Recipe: Irish-American Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest

Makes 1 large loaf

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb (3 cups) all-purpose flour, plus 1 tbsp
  • 5 oz (1 cup) whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 6 tbsp cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 2 cups cold buttermilk, shaken
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • Finely grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 cup dried currants

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Instructions:

  1. Position the rack in the middle and preheat the oven to 375F. Generously butter a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with 2- to 2 1/2-inch-high sides (you can also bake it on a baking sheet, but it will flatten more).
  2. In a bowl, whisk together the 3 cups all-purpose flour, wheat flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Sprinkle the butter over the top and cut in with a pastry cutter or 2 knives until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs.
  3. In another bowl or container, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and orange zest. Add to the dough, stirring with a wooden spoon just until well incorporated. Combine the currants with the 1 tablespoon of flour and stir into the dough. It will be sticky.
  4. Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and knead it a few times into a round loaf. Place the loaf into the prepared skillet and cut an "X" into the top of the bread with a serrated knife. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. When you tap the loaf, it will have a hollow sound.
  5. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove it from the pan, and let cool on the rack. Serve warm or at room temperature with plenty of salted Irish butter.
Sliced and buttered Irish-American Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Sliced and buttered Irish-American Soda Bread with Currants and Orange Zest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

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