One nice thing about not being Irish but being a baker is that I can take liberties with soda bread.
Not that I don’t respect tradition; I do. In fact, if I had it my way, soda bread would be just as normal as artisanal baguettes in any restaurant bread basket. Crusty, rustic, hearty soda breads, with sweet butter and honey and huge pots of bright and strong Irish Breakfast tea, farm-fresh, frosty buttermilk or even a demitasse of espresso to wash it down would be a common, welcome sight anywhere you went.
But because I am not Irish and have no kindly grandmother from Kilkenny or Kildare to oversee my efforts or protest my bold inventions, I can take the high road (for classic soda bread) or the alternate route (orange-scented sour cherry and chocolate soda bread) and feel somewhat unaccountable.
What is soda bread precisely? It is a rounded, spare quick bread, neither too sweet nor too savory. Traditionally it sports a distinct cross mark, scored by a paring knife. It is fine fresh or toasted.
Although we make a big stew over it on St. Patrick’s Day, soda bread has been everyday fare in Ireland (and the British Isles in general) for more than 100 years.
Soda breads, like American biscuits and quick breads, are leavened by sodium bicarbonate, which produces carbon dioxide in the presence of an acid ingredient such as vinegar or buttermilk. This American practice had become common in Ireland by 1840, and the introduction of baking powder, which includes its own acid, cream of tartar, gave rise (pardon the pun) to a host of breads that could be made quickly, because their chemical leavening eliminated rising time.
Irish soda bread may be descended from a whole-wheat bread leavened with yeast. At any rate, this quicker version offers its own charms. The essentials are rather spare, and they can be varied according to family recipe or personal whim. The basic ingredients are whole wheat flour, buttermilk, leavening (baking soda and some acidifying ingredient, such as buttermilk or cream of tartar, or baking soda and baking powder), a touch of salt and raisins. Caraway seeds, sugar, oatmeal and myriad other ingredients may also show up.
What I like about soda bread are its earthy crumb and rustic taste. If you like scones, you’ll like soda bread. Simple things take well to added touches, and soda bread does well with more or less sugar or other sweetener and a multitude of additions and mix of grains.
There is no end to what you can do. I created a batch of unique soda breads here, starting with the classic and then leaping to all sorts of wonderful New Age soda breads. (I stopped short of sun-dried tomato and chevre soda bread, you may be happy to know.) Culinary creativity notwithstanding, the breads here are still quite identifiably soda breads, but they are definitely stretching the definition as wide as County Cork.