Fairies and Spotted Dog
“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.
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.