One evening, as I was getting into my car, a friend walked by and asked, “Have you had your corned beef and cabbage today?” I hadn’t.
It being St. Patrick’s Day, he suggested that this was a situation that needed to be remedied; and so began a tradition of meals on March 17th that were shared in places ranging from Chasen’s, the lamented, late restaurant and watering hole of “old” Hollywood, to Nate and Al’s, an equally historical, family-owned delicatessen in Beverly Hills.
Unfortunately, my dining companion suffered from a neuro-muscular disease and as his condition worsened, his mobility became increasingly limited. During the last years of his life, he rarely went out and was reluctant to have company, so I’d fix a St. Patrick’s Day supper, which I’d deliver to his door.
Early in March, the year he died, he called me, and said, “You know I appreciate your fixing corned beef and cabbage for me, but I can send the caregiver to Nate and Al’s to pick it up. What I’d really like is some Irish soda bread to go with it.”
A visit to the Internet yielded mixed results, with persuasive arguments on all sides, for the inclusion or exclusion of certain ingredients; however, the quality of the soda bread that my dining companion and I agreed made it such a treat was the undertone of sweetness, enhanced by golden raisins and accented by the unexpected, spicy bite of caraway seeds.
I subsequently consulted a 1971 edition of Joy of Cooking (where I should’ve probably started my search) and found the following recipe, which contained all of the above.
In addition to being a lovely complement to a corned beef and cabbage meal, Irish soda bread is an excellent tea bread, spread with sweet butter and (hard to find, but worth looking for) gooseberry jam, or absent that, a red currant jelly. Enjoy it with a cup of Irish Breakfast Tea.
Irish Soda Bread
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Into a large bowl, sift together:
2 cups all purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3. Into the flour mixture, cut 6 tablespoons of chilled butter or shortening, until the consistency of coarse corn meal.
4. Stir in:
1 cup raisins that have been soaked overnight in ½ cup water and drained (replacing the water with Irish
whisky would not be frowned upon; if whisky is used, any remaining liquid may be imbibed)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
5. Gradually add ½ to 2/3 cup buttermilk.
The mixture should not be dry.
Knead briefly and shape into a round loaf. Place the loaf on a greased baking sheet (if wished, sprinkled with corn meal); across the top of the loaf and down the sides cut a large “X”, to prevent cracking. Brush the top with milk; bake 40-50 minutes. Test for doneness by tapping the loaf; if it sounds hollow, it’s done.
I’m partial to the round loaf, which is very rustic in appearance, but if a more traditional loaf is desired, shape the dough into a long loaf and bake in a greased, 9-inch-by-5-inch loaf pan.
I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in which, on Saint Patrick’s Day, everybody was Irish; in that spirit:
Old Irish Blessing
May the road rise up to greet you,
May the wind be ever at your back,
May your heart be as warm as your hearthstone,
And may the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.