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So Soda Bread? …what the heck is it?

In name, ‘soda bread’ is oft tagged with the terms “traditional” and “Irish” …and in essence, associated with famine and saints.

Nothing traditional nor Irish about my recipe …however, I am a starving grad student and this bread sure is heavenly.

This soda bread recipe is something of a cross between a quick bread (but less sweet) and a pancake (same butter-y flavor). Some purists might even dare to argue that it is NOT soda bread at all – it is not made with wheat flour (gluten-free goodness here), and also contains some brown sugar (qualifying it as “cake” by the purist of purists) and raisins (officially making it a “spotted dick”).

But I would argue back. (Of course I would.) It’s made with baking soda. Not yeast. S-O-D-A bread.

A bit of a history lesson for you (and my official rebuttal to the ye olde traditional Irish soda bread purists out there):

When I was working on my undergrad at UC Berkeley, I took a course in Food Anthropology (yes – it was as cool as it sounds) and dipped my spoon in some research on early American cookbooks.

American Cookery (1798), First Edition

American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1798) is credited as the first American cookbook written by an American for Americans. Embracing new food frontiers, Simmons melds indigenous “American” foods (such as turkey, cranberries, squash and CORN) with old skool English cooking skills, creating a kind of  ‘English-Native American’ fusion cuisine (aka Colonial Cookery).

There is a bit of a back-story of course.

Unfortunately for the English settlers, their new chosen land was not a hospitable ground to grow the precious grain seeds of their fathers, and father’s fathers, that they had carried over from the homeland. There were no mythical amber waves of grain …but there was lots of corn. And lucky for the settlers, the Native Americans were generous with their knowledge of how to grow and prepare corn – their staple food (and now a mainstay for the English settlers, whether they liked it or not).

(And today, corn is still a staple food of many Americans …hello high-fructose corn syrup.)

And Miss Simmons, she certainly loved her corn, especially cornmeal. She was infamous for her “Indian Slapjacks” and “Johnnycake” (aka “Hoe Cake”).

Aside from cornmeal, another notable innovation of American Cookery was the use of ‘pearlash’ (potassium carbonate), the grandmother of today’s baking soda, as a leavening agent. Prior to pearlash, leavening in baked goods was achieved by beating air into eggs, or spiking a batter with yeasty spirits.

The Irish version of soda bread seems to have originated later around the 1840’s and did not become a staple in the Irish diet until the late nineteenth century. The first published Irish soda bread recipe [to date], referencing an Irish newspaper in County Down, was published in the November issue of Farmer’s Magazine in 1836. Flour. Baking soda. Salt. And buttermilk. (No raisins. No sugar.) Irish soda bread tradition first born.

A page from my own recipe journal (2011)

Now for the chronicles of my own soda bread tradition.

I have been making variations of this recipe for weeks now – super simple – modify it. Play. You really can’t make it wrong. One of my favorite batches was made with black sesame and pumpkin seeds.

(Sweet tip on how to survive student famine: trade a friend half the loaf for a mason jar of homemade soup – square meal.)

This batch I baked with a good friend in mind – weary traveler in town from abroad on an eighteen hour layover (yikes), my gift to her was breakfast for the next (jet-lagged) leg of her journey. (Last night we did sushi in the Mission – yay!) I also had a wedge for breakfast – soaked it in a jar of homemade almond milk yogurt.

My Thursday Morning Breakfast

This recipe is a staple. Tack it to the fridge. The optional ingredients I have listed in italics – replace these with whatever you wish – start your own soda bread tradition.

Also note, that you can easily make this vegan – because I have a dairy allergy, I use almond milk and vegan butter …however, I do use eggs. You can substitute one tablespoon of ground flax mixed with three tablespoons of cool H2O for the one egg in this recipe. (I do find the egg lends a lighter texture – but the flax substitution still makes a great soda bread.) Also, feel free to make this with cow milk and butter (and let me know how it turns out?).

Whatever you choose to do, be sure you make your milk into “buttermilk” by adding a teaspoon of white vinegar to it beforehand.

All comes down to baking chemistry friends.

(quick chemistry lesson! – indulge me.)

Baking soda decomposes to sodium carbonate in an oven’s heat – it releases half of its carbonate ion and (poof!) produces carbon dioxide. The other half of the sodium carbonate must be further reacted with an acidic ingredient (like vinegar!) to release its carbon dioxide (even more leavening!). So again, don’t skip the buttermilk – it really builds the bread (and the flavor!).

I will spare you the history lesson on traditional soda bread shaping and embossing – I simply smooth mine into a 9″x5″x3″ loaf pan with a piece of parchment. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 -35 minutes in your pre-heated oven …insert a knife into the center of your bread to check for done-ness (it should come out ‘clean’). I also like to move the oven rack up to the top position for that last 5 mins of baking to brown the top a bit.

Cinnamon Raisin Soda Bread

1 cup sweet white rice flour

3/4 cup teff flour (don’t be afraid of teff – it is AWEsome – gives a spongy lightness)

1/4 cup potato starch

1t baking soda

1t baking powder

1t xanthan gum

1/2t salt

1t ground cinnamon

6T vegan butter (I like earthbalance)

1 cup almond milk (or, your preference of ‘milk’) + 1t white vinegar

1 egg

2T agave nectar

1/2 cup raisins

1T brown sugar mixed with a couple shakes of ground cinnamon (sprinkle on top before baking )

Okay – let’s get started: Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F ….

Special Step #1: Mix together the 1 cup of almond milk and 1 teaspoon of white vinegar and set aside for 5-10 minutes. It will curdle – this is a good thing – you just made ‘buttermilk’.

Special Step #2: Next, for the vegan butter part, melt the 6 tablespoons in a small pot on a low flame  – you just want to melt it, nothing more. Great – let’s start mixing things in bowls.

In BOWL #1 – whisk together flours, baking soda, baking powder, salt, xanthan gum and cinnamon.

In BOWL#2 – beat together the egg, almond ‘buttermilk’, melted vegan butter and agave nectar.

Combine BOWLS. Your batter will be a little on the stiff side. Fold in the raisins. Using a spatula, press it into the loaf pan lined with parchment. Sprinkle some brown sugar and cinnamon on top if you like. (I like.)

Emboss with your family crest (entirely optional).

Again, bake for 30 -35 mins, or until done using the knife test. Cool on a wire rack. Wrap up half and trade for a jug of homemade soup.

Jules.

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