I’m pretty much guessing that, as this goes to press, there won’t be much public celebration of St. Patrick’s Day going on around your house. Since we’re all in this together, especially if we keep watch over our most vulnerable, I hope this little story helps to bring you a measure of cheer.
St. Patrick’s Day was a huge event in our family. There was the gathering of the clan, whether actual blood relatives or friends; the replacement of the cheap stuff with a bottle of Jameson; corned beef and cabbage and soda bread. It was singing the old songs and dancing, listening to often-told stories exaggerated into legends. It meant knowing the heat of being swaddled in an ancient clothe of belonging.
That’s the St. Patrick’s celebrations I remember. The reality is haunting. The uncle who embarrassed himself causing a drunken scene. The time a cousin stupidly brought a boyfriend and the men took him aside to grill him over his intentions while the women kept the cousin in the kitchen with pointed digs about whether there was any sinning going on. Old battle lines flickered alive. Exhausted children cried in laps or heaped together on the old couches and chairs, bored and complaining to go home.
When I came to live in New York City, it meant navigating the Irish-for-the-day pretenders, among whom surely there were a few British. By lunch, and especially after work, this meant drawing a detailed route that might avoid roaming bands of insanely blotto men who felt it their due to grab a young woman who happened to have a face right out of Ireland, hook an arm around her or even back her into the side of a building, then lean their bodies hard against her to take their Irish good luck kiss, with the added thrill of a pinch at the waist, a hand cupped around a tiny breast. This, in broad daylight, in the middle of the city, without a single soul seeming to think the struggling woman might not be having as much fun as everyone else. It was a fine halleluyah day when I was deemed to have aged out of desirability and was freed of such shenanigans.
And yet, come St. Patrick’s Day, I will boil up corned beef and pull out Mom’s recipe for soda bread.
My memory of her recipe was that it came from her mother, Mary Sheridan, who arrived at 18 from, Glen, a minuscule village in Donegal. A cousin secured her a job as a cook in a rich family’s house. She proved good at it and worked there until she married Patrick Gallagher, then proceeded to have seven children.
Mom was not particularly kind about Mary’s housekeeping skills but she considered her cooking to be exceptional. Her recipes came to us through the oral tradition of standing beside Mom at the stove. The fact that the above recipe for soda bread was written down at all (and typed, at that), somehow added to its high place in the family’s repertory.
Every year I pulled out the recipe and every year I baked it. The family cherished it. Friends said it was the best soda bread they ever ate. Well, of course. It was the real thing, straight from Glen in Donegal.
And then I lost the recipe. It was a year after Mom died and my sister, Sue, was off somewhere in the world teaching global health. The race to St. Patrick’s Day was heating up and, in a panic, I clicked through the internet and found a bunch of recipes. The ingredients’ measurements were usually off. All incorporated butter. Raisins were often missing. None listed caraway seeds. I tried a few and the results were something closer to a cake and without the essential sweet sourness. Mary Sheridan Gallagher’s recipe was, indeed, the true original.
Then I opened Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and found his recipe. Except for the directions being very precise and the sacrilegious use of a food processor, the recipe was exactly the same as Mary’s. And Martha Stewart! Hers was also the same except she brushed it with egg white to create a sheen. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!
When my sister finally returned, I called.
“Mom’s soda bread recipes was her moms, right?”
Sue responded with an emphatic, “yeah.”
“I found two exactly like hers,” I said and named Bittman and Stewart.
“Well, Bittman uses a food processor. And Stewart does an egg wash.”
She totally dismissed the food processor and went straight for the egg wash. “That’s for the rich who can spare an extra egg or want to show off.” And that, as far as Sue was concerned, was that.
But still, how original could Moms’ Moms’ recipe be, then? It’s not hyperbolic to say the world shifted a little in having to contemplate the possibility that a recipe core to my identity, that was passed from one woman’s hand to another and then another, could not be the total of its sum.
I finally found the slip of paper with Mom’s recipe stuck in one of my old notebooks for a reason I can no longer remember. Yesterday I tried Bittman’s and Stewart’s, determined to be professional about this dilemma. I just couldn’t bring myself to use a food processor. Mom and Sue were very specific that the bread had to be mixed with a cupped hand, folding the dry into the wet until a sticky dough forms. The correct next step requires it to be plopped without any fanfare into a flour dusted cast iron skillet.
Call back to Sue:
“Moms recipe doesn’t say anything about a cast iron skillet.”
“That’s what she used.”
“I know, but….”
“Patty,” she said. If we had been in the same kitchen instead of on our phones her look would be the one a big sister gives a little sister who is being tiresomely annoying. In other words, she hung up.
I dusted my cast iron skillet and plopped one dough in, quickly shaping it, making the sign of the cross. The next I shaped on a cooking sheet, brushed it with an egg wash. The immediate effect of this was that the dough lost its cragginess. I made the sign of the cross and both went into the oven.
Baking on a baking sheet allows the dough to spread out, making it flatter and very dense. The wash creates a very crunchy crust. In a blind taste testing, the husband thought the plain was sweeter and liked it better. One son preferred the crunchy crust. The other said he didn’t care, he’d eat them both.
In the long run, Moms’ Moms’ soda bread might not be the unique recipe I always thought it to be. Instead, it’s originality is in the technique taught from Mary, to Mom, to Sue and me. Ours is made the way I imagine Mary Sheridan learned it from her Mom in the cottage kitchen in Glen, in Donegal.
Mary Sheridan’s Soda Bread (with special technique notes in italics)
4 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 box raisins
It’s important to add the raisins here and make sure they’re well coated or they’ll end up at the bottom of the bread.
1 teaspoon caraway (optional) I don’t know why Mom said caraway seeds were optional. She always used them.
2 cups Buttermilk mix all together
This is very important! DO NOT HANDLE THE DOUGH ANYMORE THAN YOU HAVE TO. A GOOD TURN OR FOUR SHOULD BE ENOUGH AND THEN PLOP DIRECTLY FROM BOWL INTO SKILLET. SHAPE IT INTO A NICE ROUND AND MAKE THE CROSS WITH A SHARP KNIFE.
Put in dusted cast iron skillet that is greased & floured
I don’t care if the cover recipe says pan or loaf pan, you need to use a cast iron skillet to obtain the nice round, high bread with a brown bottom.
Bake 1 hr @350″
My brother just sent me a photo of his version of Mom’s soda bread. He wrote the comment below about adding flax seeds, cinnamon, vital wheat gluten, nutritional yeast (I don’t know what that is), substituted two cups of regular flour with whole wheat flour and used a mix of heavy and light cream rather than buttermilk because, he said, he was cleaning out the refrigerator.
Honestly, I’m not sure Mom would approve–the cream isn’t a good substitute for buttermilk (although she would approve of cleaning out the refrigerator). But it looks good and probably tastes good. Certainly, it’s probably better for you, too (he’s the healthy one in the family). Then again, he’s the one who filled crepes with hot dogs.
Also, as Sue and I say, as the only boy in the family, Mom loved him best and except for not becoming a priest, in her eyes he could do no wrong!
Seriously, his sisters agree, Joe is the perfect brother.