One of the perks of being in a new country is trying the local food. Irish brown soda bread, known simply as brown bread, is a ubiquitous part of the Irish meal. It is always served with soup and many of my colleagues eat it warm with butter at tea. We have also had it served to us before we order our meal at the nicer restaurants and with breakfast at our B and B.

Soda bread is a “quick bread” meaning that it does not use yeast. Baking soda reacting with buttermilk is the leavening agent used here. According to Darina Allen, celebrity chef and owner of Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork, this traditional bread came to Ireland in the mid 1800’s when bicarbonate of soda was first introduced to the country.

Tradition dictates that before baking the bread, the cook should cut the sign of the cross into the round loaf to keep the devil at bay, and then stab each quarter with a knife to let the fairies out (so they don’t jinx the bread). In truth, this ritual was probably done for more practical reasons. Soda bread is very dense, and without these cuts you may very well be left with a raw doughy mess in the center of your loaf.

A couple of weekends ago I bought a scale so that I could make my own brown bread. Almost all European recipes use weight measurements for dry ingredients, so a scale is required for recipes that require precise amounts such as baking. There seem to be as many versions of this classic recipe as families here in Ireland. Pat and I have found that we like it best with a trace of sweetness. The recipe I used for my first brown bread attempt called for a tablespoon of Black Treacle, which is basically black strap molasses. After a taste test done by both myself and Pat we agreed that the flavor was fine, but I hadn’t hit on the perfect loaf of brown bread, yet – the crust was a bit tough. (It was so tough that our bread knife could barely saw through it. Oy!)

I made a second and much more successful attempt this weekend. The bread was delicious and the crust did not cause any cracked teeth. One confession, though: My successful brown bread was made with a mix. A colleague from work told me that most people use the Odlums Brown Bread Mix rather than making their own bread from scratch, and she assures me that it is just as good as homemade.