Fairies and Spotted Dog

Darina Allen/Photo by Tom Starkweather

“Cut a deep cross into the top of the bread.  Then prick each quarter with a fork to let the fairies out,” explained Darina Allen, as she demonstrated how to make Irish Soda Bread.  Darina is the founder of the renowned Ballymaloe Cooking School in Ballymaloe, Ireland where she teaches and lives on an organic farm.  Often called the Julia Child of Ireland, Darina was in New York recently as a representative of Kerrygold butter and cheese, which is the brand name for the Irish Dairy Board, a cooperative of small farmer co-ops and creameries.

Darina hosted a cooking demonstration and tasting at The Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  We toured a typical 19th century Irish apartment, then met Darina in the kitchen at the visitors’ center.  Darina told us that Soda Bread, which is leavened with baking soda and buttermilk, is a staple in Irish homes and at one time was baked fresh daily in a heavy iron pot on the hearth.  The bread took only 2 to 3 minutes to mix and shape.  After about 30 minutes in the oven, it was ready to eat.  My favorite way was slathered with golden Kerrygold butter, or topped with Cashel Blue, an artisanal cow’s milk cheese hand made exclusively by the Grubb family on their farm near Cashel in County Tipperary.  Luscious and creamy, semi-soft Cashel Blue has a round, buttery flavor.

Kerrygold Dubliner Cheese Scones/Photo by Tom Starkweather

Darina had a host of suggestions for varying the basic soda bread formula, such as adding a handful of chopped fresh herbs, or raisins to make the colorfully named Spotted Dog. The dough can also be cut into wedges for scones, and served with clotted cream and jam.  Another idea was to cut the dough into pieces, brush the tops with beaten egg, and sprinkle them with grated Kerrygold Dubliner cheese before baking.  Small pieces would be perfect for appetizers, while larger ones could be served like dinner rolls.

Here is Darina’s recipe in her own words.  If you don’t have store bought buttermilk, make your own by putting, for every cup needed, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or white vinegar into a measuring cup and filling it to 1 cup with milk.  Let stand 5 minutes until slightly curdled.

White Soda Bread (Makes 1 loaf)

450 grams (1 pound/4cups) white flour, preferably unbleached

1 level teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon baking soda

sour milk or buttermilk to mix — 350 to 450 ml (12 to 14 fluid ounces/1-1/2 to 1/3/4 cups) approximately

Preheat the oven to 230°C or 450°F.

Seive the dry ingredients.  Make a well in the centre.  Pour most of the milk in at once.  Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary.  The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky.  When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface.  Wash and dry your hands.  Tidy it up and flip over gently.  Pat the dough into a round about 1-1/2 inches deep and cut a cross on it to let the fairies out!  Let the cuts go over the sides of the bread to make sure of this.

Place the dough on an ungreased baking sheet.   Bake in a hot oven 230°C/450°F for 8 to 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 200°C/400°F for 30 minutes or until cooked.  If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread:  if it is cooked it will sound hollow.


Variation:  Kerrygold Dubliner Cheese Scones — Make the dough as above but flatten the dough into a round 2.5cm (1 inch) deep approx.  Cut into wedges.  Brush the tops with beaten egg.  Sprinkle the tops with 1 cup grated Dubliner Cheese.  Bake for 20 minutes approx. in a hot oven, 230°C/450°F.


Darina sent everyone home with a gift copy of her new book Irish Traditional Cooking (Kyle Books 2012) and a wheel of Kerrygold Cashel Blue.  I’m captivated by the beautiful photos and charming stories in the book.  As for the cheese, we’ve been enjoying it with fruit for dessert and with nuts for a snack.

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1 Charles Scicolone { 03.31.12 at 1:37 PM }

When will you make it for me!

2 Salvatore Fanara { 04.01.12 at 12:53 AM }

Great traditional recipe… Was in Dublin and South East Ireland the past October and also visited the Rock of Cashel. Was my first time in Ireland and haven’t seen the North area yet, but even when cloudy or rainy it’s of an incredible beauty! Food-wise I couldn’t miss Kinsale County Clark i.e. the “Culinary Capital of Ireland”! 🙂 Although in the short 1st visit had no time to really do a full culinary exploration of the several restaurants I dined at Martin Shanahan’s FishyFishy and was just a splendid experience, definitely to be repeated and something I’d highly recommend.

Thanks for sharing Darina’s recipe that’s already a treat onto itself! 😀

3 Michele Scicolone { 04.02.12 at 1:10 PM }

Darina is delightful. I hope to visit that area of Ireland soon.

4 Angela Grochowski (Leotta) { 09.10.12 at 7:32 PM }

Hi Michele: I learned about you from my cousin Roseann D’Antonio (Castagliola). I have your “1000 Italian Recipes” and use it often, especially during the holidays. I recall that you wrote another book in which you interviewed people and published their recipes. One of the recipes was that of my Grandmother, Concetta Fisichella. The recipe was for Baccala Pie. I did have the recipe at one time, but have since misplaced. I’d like to get the book that recipe is in, but don’t remember the name. As the holidays are fast approaching, I’d appreciate it if you could e-mail me the name of your book that recipe is in. I look forward to hearing from you. Angela

5 Michele Scicolone { 09.11.12 at 5:43 AM }

Hi, Angela, Nice to hear from you! That recipe is a treasure. You can find it in my book Pizza Anyway You Slice It. It’s available online on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Pizza-Recipes-Homemade-Focaccia-Calzones/dp/0767903730/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347367084&sr=1-1&keywords=pizza+any+way+you+slice+it.
Regards, Michele

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