Imbolg and Holy Days: Harbingers of Spring
Our seasons are marked by solstices and equinoxes but in the Irish tradition the "cross-quarter days" are just as important. These mark the centers of the season. The first flowers at Imbolg (snowdrops), Beltaine which is May Day, Lunasa's mid-summer's eve, and we all know of Halloween or Samhain.
The Irish in my family is quiet and the connection more distant than the Slovenian clan but I was blessed to be able to immerse myself in Irish culture and actually live there for a time. Soda bread is ubiquitous, mostly made with whole wheat meal but also with white flour. Always served with rich butter and jam or marmalade.
February and March bring the Irish traditions of Imbolg, St. Bridget, St. Patrick and the holy day of Sheela-na-gig. For me this is the time to make Irish Soda Bread. I would prefer to make the traditional Brown Bread but our flour choices here in Denver cannot replicate the brown meal of the emerald isle. So here is my recipe and some photos to guide you in making the perfect Irish White Soda Bread.
(Before you begin, heat the oven to 450F/230C)
First, the Trinity
Three is a magic number in Irish culture. The shamrock. The triskle. The trinity....and the soda bread. Take three heaping cups of flour. Add the holy bread trinity: half a teaspoon of salt, sugar, and soda
Now the Butter(milk)
Irish dairy is legendary due to the green fields and healthy cattle still existing on this island in the Atlantic. It's the combining of buttermilk with the soda that creates the rising. If you don't have buttermilk you can use sour milk...or sour your milk with a tablespoon of vinegar.
Make a hole in the center of the flour mixture. As many of you know, the moisture levels in baking can change with the atmosphere. Start with one cup of buttermilk...keeping another cup available to add as needed until the dough is lightly sticky.
You Knead to Let in the Air
The technique you use when kneading the soda bread is important. Open your hand wide, spread your fingers, and use your hand like a rake to pull in from the sides to the center as you work your way around the bowl. (Soda bread can become heavy and hard if you don't work in the air.)
This is where you would add dried fruit: currants, golden raisins, cranberries...whatever you like.
When the dough is moist all the way through and lightly sticky, turn it out onto a floured board and work it by folding and shaping, adding flour as needed until it has woven its bread threads together like a nice linen.
Let the Fairies Out
You know a soda bread by the cross cutting into the top. Shape the loaf in a round about 2 inches high. Cut a cross half way through - to let the fairies out, they say. This helps the heat get in so the bread cooks evenly.
Brush the loaf with buttermilk to help it brown evenly.
Bake it in a hot oven (450F/230C) for half an hour, 30 minutes. You know it's done when the cross is dry and tapping the bottom sounds hollow.
Be sure to serve it with butter and jam...and a nice cuppa tay!
Go raibh maith agat.