Literary Aspirations and a Recipe for Ye Olde Postcard Soda Bread


St. Patrick’s Day approaches, and thoughts turn to soda bread — and McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes, obvs. But most relevantly for the purposes of this blog, soda bread. If you’re not into baking because you’re not a baking person, this might be the bread to convert you. No yeast. One mixing bowl. Not a whole lot of fuss.

The recipe that I turn to is adapted from a postcard sent to me by my then-boyfriend, a poet. He’d gone on a Joyce-themed exploration of Dublin to read Ulysses near famed landmarks, drink Guinness, and hope for inspiration to be absorbed via osmosis, presumably.

We pined for each other. And sent each other long letters filled with literary allusion. Maud Gonne and Yeats had nothing on us.

Anyway, this particular postcard was excessively whimsical. It featured a leprechaun standing at the very end of the rainbow, but instead of a pot of gold, he was holding up a “Traditional Soda Bread Recipe” on a Ye Olde parchment scroll. In many ways, it was a puzzle. Had someone taken the gold already, but felt moved to leave some token for the next adventurer? Was the soda bread really more valuable than a whole pot of gold? (It’s good, but it’s not. Don’t even worry about it.)

Even so, though not holding out a whole bunch of hope, I made the soda bread. And it was good! Studded with dried fruit, delicious toasted and spread with butter and jam. However, turns out, it was neither genuinely traditional nor Ye Olde at all. Actual traditional soda bread has just four ingredients: flour, soda, salt, and buttermilk. It’s bread born out of famine, steeped in meaning and tradition.

But this Nouveau Ersatz soda bread had an actual Irish postmark on it, so I decided that was close enough, and it’s what I make every year.

Soda bread
4 cups flour
4 tbsp sugar
1 level tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 stick cold butter, diced (as though you were making pastry)
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 egg
1 cup mixed dried cranberries and sultanas
optional 1/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts / 1 tsp orange zest / pinch of cinnamon or ginger

  • Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  • Put the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and butter into the mixer and stir the mixture on low until the butter is incorporated.
  • Add the egg to the buttermilk, then, while mixing the dough on low, add the wet ingredients slowly until combined.
  • Toss the dried fruit (and nuts) in a little flour and add to the mixer. Give the dough a quick mix to combine.
  • Tip the dough out onto the counter, and give it a quick knead to shape it. Pop it in a round cake tin (or shape it and pop it on a baking tray), and cut a cross in the top (“to let the devil out”). Bake on a tray covered in parchment for 45 minutes (if you tap the bottom of the loaf it should feel hollow).
  • Serve as is, or toast. It’s best eaten the day of baking, or frozen for toasting at a later date.

In this column, Katherine Knowles divulges recipes you can make in your tiny New York City kitchen.


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