In an era in which women had a great deal to do every day, a quick bread such as Irish Soda Bread can be one of the easiest things to prepare for dinner. Not only that, but the next morning it is there for breakfast and then it will be used up (soda bread doesn't keep very long; two days, max). Housewives who had babies to mind, farm chores, cooking and "women's work" such as laundry were saving minutes here and there all day.
Today we can get a glimpse of the lives they lived, but that's about it. Even farming has been simplified by the invention of brilliant machines that reduced the labor required to raise crops and even animals. This often occurred to me when I passed the afternoon at my mother-in-law's house and she did laundry, for which she used an old-fashioned wringer washer. Her husband was more than willing to buy her a modern washer-dryer set, but she always felt that she would get her clothing cleaner with the old-style washer.
We are able to learn something more about this Nineteenth-Century lifestyle when we read about life in the ethnic neighborhoods of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. I read about it in the works of the famous Jewish humorist, Sam Levinson, and heard about it from my mother, who was born in Chicago's Polish neighborhood on the Northwest Side, near a well-known area called Six Corners.
All the ethnic groups ended up in one of these places when they got here from Europe, as did my grandfather. He drifted from New York to Boston to Chicago before marrying my grandmother, who had been born there in Chicago. I recommend that everyone explore their ethnic heritage.
There was a recent television program called "Who Do You Think You Are?" that I followed for the few programs that they did. Two of the subjects were actresses Lisa Kudrow and Sarah Jessica Parker. Kudrow is Jewish, and in visiting her family's village in Europe she learned that some of her relatives--and most of the Jews in the village--were killed in a terrible slaughter during the Nazi era.
Parker would, at first glance, seem to have a more cheerful story, but it turned out that one of her ancestors had been accused of witchcraft in New England. Watch this program if it comes around on cable reruns!
Meanwhile, I have adapted and expanded a good recipe for Irish Soda Bread from Elise at simplyrecipes.com.
IRISH SODA BREAD
4 to 4-1/2 cups flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 stick butter at room temperature
1 cup golden raisins
1 large egg, at room temperature
1-3/4 cups buttermilk
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. If you are planning to bake the bread in a cast-iron skillet, place the skillet in the cold oven to warm as the oven warms.
Whisk together 4 cups of flour, the sugar, salt, and baking soda into a large mixing bowl. Using your (clean) fingers, two knives or a pastry blender, work the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal, then stir in the raisins.
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the beaten egg and buttermilk and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough is too stiff to stir. Dust your hands with a little flour, then gently knead the dough in the bowl just long enough to form a rough ball. If the dough is too sticky to work with, add in a little more flour. Do not over-knead!
Transfer the dough to a lightly-floured surface and shape it into a round loaf. Note that the dough will be a little sticky, and quite shaggy (much like a shortcake biscuit dough). You want to work it just enough so that the flour is moistened and the dough just barely comes together. If you over-knead, the bread will end up tough.
Lay the round of dough on a flat baking sheet (it will flatten out a bit in the pan or on the baking sheet). If your iron skillet is hot in the oven by now, remove it with an oven mitt to the top of the stove and turn the dough into it. The dough will sizzle a bit. If necessary, use a rubber spatula to shape the loaf in the skillet.
Using a serrated knife, score the top of the dough about an inch and a half deep in an "X" shape. The purpose of the scoring is to help the oven's heat to get into the center of the dough while it cooks.
Transfer the dough to the oven and bake until the bread is golden and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped, about 35-45 minutes. Check for doneness by inserting a long, thin skewer into the center. If it comes out clean, it's done.
If the top is getting too dark while baking, tent the bread with some aluminum foil.
If you use a cast iron skillet to cook the bread in the oven, be very careful when you take the pan out. It's easy to forget that the handle is extremely hot. Have your full-hand oven mitt ready for this.
Remove the skillet or sheet from oven and let the bread sit in the pan or on the sheet for 5-10 minutes. When the heat hazard is reduced, turn the loaf out to a wire rack to cool briefly. Serve the bread warm, at room temperature, or sliced and toasted. Irish Soda Bread is best when eaten warm and just baked.
I have an idea that Irish Soda Bread was baked often in the iron skillet, because the skillet was most likely already in the kitchen. I bake it that way myself because of this, and not long ago I invested in a cast-iron loaf pan from Lodge to bake my go-to yeast bread as well.
If you don't like to make baked goods with buttermilk (I don't use it any more), you can use plain milk and self-rising flour and get excellent results.