Although soda bread may feel both inherently Irish, and as old as time immemorial, its origins tell a slightly different story. Soda bread can be dated back as far as 1836: although it may feel older, the reality is that bicarbonate of soda – integral to the rise of soda bread – didn’t arrive in Ireland until the 1830s. And the use of bicarb as a leavening agent in bread didn’t begin with the Irish; there is evidence of American Indians using pearl ash (potassium carbonate) to leaven their bread before the 1800’s. But soda bread was adopted so wholeheartedly that it has become an indelible part of the Irish national identity.
Soda bread uses normal soft flour that you would use for baking cakes or making a roux, as opposed to the strong, protein-rich, bread flour we normally use for making, well, bread. Soft flour doesn’t give yeast enough food to create a good rise, but supports bicarbonate of soda reacting with buttermilk, producing a soft, tender crumb and a crisp crust; soft flour was prevalent in Ireland in the early twentieth century, cementing soda bread’s reach.
Soda bread is impossibly easy, with no instructions really needed beyond ‘mix wet and dry ingredients; shape’. It’s great for using up yoghurt or milk that is slightly past its best. If you don’t have buttermilk, squeeze half a lemon into 525g whole milk, and allow to stand for five minutes, before following the recipe as normal. Because this is a no-yeast quick bread, it doesn’t need any proving time. I’ve bastardised the more authentic and traditional soda bread by shoving handfuls of mature cheddar into it. Of course, you don’t have to do this, the bread will work perfectly well without it, and taste delicious. But I love the combination of the natural sourness of the bread alongside the strength and sharpness of the cheese.
I use the most mature cheddar I can find: the streaks and pockets of cheese through the little buns are tiny bursts of joy. They smell fantastic while they’re baking, but also taste truly cheesy: they are the antidote to every promising but ultimately disappointing cheese scone you’ve ever had. It goes like this…
Cheddar Soda Bread
Makes: Five small loaves
Takes: Five minutes
Bakes: 30 minutes
400g plain flour
400g wholemeal flour
25g baking powder
250g mature cheddar.
1. Preheat over to 180°C and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper, and sprinkle with flour
2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a jug, measure out and mix the buttermilk and honey. If you are making your own buttermilk, measure out the same quantity of milk, add a good squeeze of lemon juice, mix once with a spoon, and allow to sit for five minutes until thickened.
3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix immediately, using your hands. You need the dough to come together cohesively, but to work it as little as possible. The dough won’t be smooth or elastic, so don’t worry if it looks a little scraggy.
4. Divide the dough into pieces of around 300g, and briefly roll to form balls. Place on the baking trays, spaced well apart and – using a knife or dough scraper – press a cross stretching the length and breadth of the dough ball. This should be deep: you want to stop just short of dividing the dough ball.
5. Bake for 25-35 minutes until golden and cheesy-smelling. Cool for 15 minutes before carefully peeling from the paper. Eat warm, if possible, but these will also keep for at least a day, and toasts up well.