True Irish soda bread symbolizes the simple, baking traditions staunchly defended by those descendants of the Emerald Isle.
Berkshire and Southern Vermont families with direct lineage to Ireland often strictly adhere to the bread's four basic ingredients: flour, baking soda — not baking powder — salt and buttermilk.
There's even a Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread that pooh-poohs tweaking the recipe with butter, eggs, raisins and/or nuts.
"Anything else makes it a 'Tea Cake!,'" proclaims the group's website.
What constitutes an ethnic kitchen custom depends on how you were raised, according to Melanie McElligott, corporate bakery sales manager for Big Y World Class Markets based in Springfield, Mass.
"A traditional Irish soda bread is based on the tradition of each family," she said. "[Big Y] stick's to the old world recipe as that's what our customers try to build around their meals."
The simplicity of Irish soda bread comes from the use of baking soda — sodium bicarbonate — rather than the more temperamental yeast as the leavening agent. The baking soda reacts with the lactic acid of the buttermilk producing tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide giving the bread its savory form. For the health conscience, cake or pastry flour would be preferred as they have lower levels of gluten than bread flour.
One thing to avoid is kneading the dough, says Courtney Contos, chef/owner of Chef Contos Kitchen & Store in Shelburne, Vt.
"If you knead it, you activate the protein in the flour and it'll be tough," she said. "The bread should be flaky — melt in your mouth."
Contos' much sought after Irish soda bread is based on the recipe of her maternal great-great grandmother from Ireland.
"I will use currants instead of raisins," she said. "I give my bread that little bit of sweetness and it's good toasted."
Contos noted the two slits often made in the top of the dough make the sign of the Cross after baking to ward off evil spirits, according to Irish legend.
While sales of Irish soda bread spike close to or on St. Patrick's Day, consumer demand for the baked good has gone well-beyond the first half of March.
Last year, McElligott said Big Y expanded its sales period, starting the end of January instead of early February with the last Irish soda bread sold on March 17.
Irish soda bread, before Valentine's Day? Apparently, not too early in the supermarket world.
"Customers were thrilled, we even have some competitors who carry it year round," she said. "A six-week stretch is a blink of an eye in our business."
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233
Irish Soda Bread
Courtesy of Courtney Contos, Shelburne, Vt.
Makes two loaves
4 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes, room temperature
1 ½ cup currents
1 ¾ cups buttermilk
1 large egg
Preheat oven to 375°F. Generously butter 8-inch cake pan.
Whisk first 5 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Cut in butter; using pastry cutter or fingertips, until coarse crumbs form. Stir in currents.
Whisk buttermilk and egg in medium bowl to blend. Add to dough; using wooden spoon, stir just until well incorporated (dough will be very sticky). Turn dough out on a floured surface. Using floured hands knead dough for 2 minutes.
Halve the dough and shape each half into a round loaf. Transfer dough to prepared pans; smooth top, mounding slightly in center. Using small sharp knife dipped into flour, cut 1-inch-deep X in top center of dough. Bake until bread is cooked through and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes. Cool bread in skillet 10 minutes. Turn out onto rack and cool completely. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap tightly in foil; store at room temperature.)