Simple (or Not So Simple) Soda Bread
I made a loaf of soda bread the other day, and thought, as I often do when making soda bread, why doesn’t everyone make soda bread all the time? It is criminally easy to make. Quick. Can be as plain as you want it to be. Or you can throw in a lot of extra add-in ingredients. I love a tasty loaf of yeast bread, or sourdough, so it couldn’t be the only bread in my life, but it is so darn easy.
As a baker there are many times I think this. And even though I bake a lot, and love to do it, of course I don’t make every one of our own baked goods. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books as a child. (Mom made me a full pioneer outfit, bonnet and all, to wear in the Bicentennial parade.) In many ways I aspire to that mentality, the one where you have to make everything for yourself, every day, because you are your only resource. I live in a rural town, shops are not convenient, I can easily imagine how many skills it would take to be able to survive. We obviously don’t have to live like this any more. Nor would I actually want to, but I admire the old-fashioned survival. Or I admire feeling confident in the knowledge of being able to produce a meal if and when needed. Or a shirt, or a utensil.
I think this confidence, or the training of this strain of quiet confidence, is missing for a lot of people. I don’t know if it’s generational. I imagine it has something to do with the change in family structure, now that mothers no longer stay home with children as a rule, doing all these things day in and day out. Demonstrating to their children, directly and indirectly, this level of self-sufficiency. All that subtle knowledge that is passed down when you watch a person do a thing every single day.
I’m not here to make some larger political or sociological statement, I just think a lot while I’m baking. About how easy some things are to make. How simple. How cheap. And that not knowing how easily you could do this yourself is a great loss.
Hubby and I used to joke, when we were buying an inn and taking the leap of all leaps off into the unknown, that if it all fell apart we could at least wait tables. I still believe this – I can get a job if needed, one that pays pretty well, will usually feed me too, in an industry that is almost always looking for someone, somewhere, to do this job. It’s a mental safety net. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be a waitress again. Waitressing was always my second job, my summer job, my get-through-college-and-graduate-school job. On two separate occasions I threw away every set of black pants, white shirts and black shoes I owned, vowing I’d never waitress again. [I am honestly still not entirely sure how I ended up owning a restaurant for 13 years.] All of that being said, I always went back to it and I do like having confidence that I could, fairly quickly, support myself if needed.)
I think knowing basic cooking skills is the same safety net. One I wish every person, of every age, had in their back pocket. It is possible to eat healthy, quick food with pennies. It is even possible to jazz up the quick food and make it something approaching extravagant.
For example, back to the soda bread baking, I had come across a recipe for Apple, Cheddar and Cider Soda Bread. I liked the sound of it and decided to make it just for fun. Then I realized we didn’t have any sage in the house. We have basil and rosemary in the freezer, and a little cilantro. None of which sounded right to me. So I tossed in a few dried herbs, some marjoram. (We have mountains of dried marjoram, I have no idea why. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a recipe that actually calls for it. So I’ve taken to throwing it in here and there, for fun.) Next I realized we didn’t have any cheddar, though we had some Cobb Hill Ascutney Mountain cheese and that was a darn fine replacement. Then we didn’t have any cider of any variety (well, except cider vinegar) so I threw in some of the can of Conehead IPA that was rattling around in the basement fridge. I added a couple of teaspoons of brown sugar because I thought cider would have been sweeter than beer.
And you know what? Deeeeelicious. I do think the cider would have been better, but all in all, a perfect loaf to tear into for a quick snack. The next night, with some cheese and meats and piccalilli, it made a perfect dinner. All I’m trying to say, in a very roundabout way, is soda bread is supremely easy to make. And pretty hard to screw up.
- 3 1/3 cups flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 3/4 cups buttermilk If you don't have buttermilk to hand, you can create a good imitation by adding 1 Tbsp of lemon juice to regular milk and letting it sit for 5 minutes
Preheat oven to 450F. Place a baking stone or flour dusted baking sheet in the oven to warm up.
In a large bowl mix the flour, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the center of the mix and slowly pour in the buttermilk. Mix quickly, preferably with your hands, until you have a soft dough that is not too wet or sticky.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface and shape into a round loaf, about an inch or two thick. Cut a cross into the top.
Reduce oven to 400F.
Place dough onto heated surface and bake for 30 minutes. Tap the bottom of the loaf to check for doneness. It makes a hollow sound when it is ready.
Irish tradition says that you cut the cross in the top of a loaf of soda bread to let the fairies out. There is a more scientific explanation, but fairies are more fun.