The Soda Bread Wars

or how the Cousins in an Irish Family took sides but didn’t take up arms, and more.

As many of you know, I come from a very ethnic Irish American family. A few years ago, I posted the recipe for soda bread that my grandmother, Hanorah Hayes Sullivan, taught me as a youngster. It is the one that they made in her village, Murroe, in Limerick. (She was a servant girl in the house of the Lord who once owned Glenstal Abbey, but that’s a story for another telling.)

The Hanley cousins, descended from my grandmother Margaret Doherty of Longford and John Hanley of Cavan, immediately flew into competitive action. I include my cousin Brian’s narrative for your amusement. Grandma Hanley would give a blank stare at “turbinado” but Brian, who is upright and honest as well as smart and handsome, admits such.

In the interest of familial peace and in rememberance of two very faithful, loving grandmothers, I offer both on my patron’s day. St. Patrick evangelized the Irish and is said to have driven out the snakes. May you, today, find a moment in which you can share your faith, and may the current serpents of doubt and fear be driven far from your table as you celebrate this feast!

Grandma Sullivan’s Recipe

This would be the recipe to which “none compares,” as in a Wild Irish Rose. None. 

Start by turning on the oven and heating until really hot, around 425˚.

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Mix all these dry ingredients together.

1 stick very soft butter

With your hands, cut the butter into the flour until it is very fine and “mealy” feeling.

2 cups raisins

Add the raisins and mix in. (Aunt Mae Keane’s family also puts in caraway seeds but Sullivans reject this practice roundly. Your call.)

3/4 quart buttermilk

Pour in buttermilk. You then want to mix this up until it is a moist but not saturated dough – sticky, but not mushy. Yikes. How do I explain this? Then, take the wet dough and put it on a pile of flour on the counter. Turn it a bit without major kneading, just to shape it into a round loaf and get a smooth exterior.

Put it in a cast iron skillet. (This is pretty essential; it mimics the bottom of a hearth, and also helps the bread keep its form.) Take a knife and cut a + across the center, about a quarter inch deep. Put it in the hot oven, and let it begin baking. It will rise and get very light brown. Then, lower the oven to 350˚. Bake until golden brown and a knife comes out fairly clean. A cooked looking crumb on the knife is okay, but o’gloop is not. By the way, o’gloop is the gaelic word for sticky mess, just so you know. 

Grandma Hanley’s Recipe

“So here is the real deal, despite what you may see out and about on the Internets. This is the best Soda Bread from here to the Emerald Isle!!!” says Brian Hanley, and it’s so tragic because he is totally wrong about this. Sigh.

4 Cups Flour
1 Cup Sugar
4 Tsp Baking Powder
1 Tsp Baking Soda
1 Tsp Salt
4 oz Butter (Softened)
1 Egg
1 cup Golden Raisins
8 oz Sour Cream
1.5 Cups Buttermilk

Combine all ingredients, mix by hand (I am serious).Place dough in a buttered cast iron skillet. Sprinkle some sugar (We use Turbanado) on the top to really make the crust happen (The addition of sugar to the top is a generational “add-on”. Not that we can improve Grandma’s masterpiece, but it is a nice crunchy addition). She’s rolling in her grave Brian, truly.

So you can’t eat this unless you have the right music playing, as we all know that my people really value song. So I offer the magnificent Deer’s Cry by Shaun Davey, lyrics below, which is a setting of the Lorica of St. Patrick. It’s burned into my heart, I love it so much.

Happy St. Patrick’s today. Erin go Bragh; Ireland forever!

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