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.