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Every year when St. Patrick's Day approaches, the demand for Irish soda bread skyrockets at bakeries across America. Rahn Keucher, head baker and proprietor of Rahn's Artisan Breads in Dayton, Ohio, says "As we get closer to St. Patrick's Day, the demand for the bread increases… When the holiday falls on a weekend, we [bake] over 100 breads for restaurants, parties, and other special events." And the general rush starts much earlier than that; they start baking and selling the bread the weekend after Valentine's Day.
While it's hard to beat the convenience of running to the local baker and picking a loaf off the shelf, it's true that nothing beats homemade. And in this case, we're sure that baker won't be able to beat your homemade soda bread. That's because we have Robert Ditty's recipe, courtesy of John Blanchette, a freelance travel writer based out of Los Angeles.
Robert Ditty, perhaps better known across the pond than here in the States, is an award-winning bread baker based in Northern Ireland in the village of Castledawson, outside of Belfast. The bakery's claim to fame includes not just soda bread, but also smoked oatcakes and Christmas mince pies.
Ditty's father launched the original Ditty's Bakery in 1963 in Castledawson. There, Ditty learned the craft during his time off on holidays and in the summer while growing up. Despite the unstable environment in Northern Ireland at the time, the bakery was a huge success.
Unfortunately, the original location succumbed to a terrorist attack in 1976, and the Dittys were forced to relocate to Magherafelt in 1985. Ditty's father passed away around this time, and the younger generation took over the family business. Today, it continues to thrive, and Ditty's goods are featured at major events in Britain including the Ryder Cup and Wimbledon.
Ditty's version of Irish soda bread is simple and authentic. Soda bread, for those who aren't familiar with it, gets its name from the fact that baking soda is used as the leavening agent instead of yeast. According to Colman Andrews, editorial director at The Daily Meal and author of The Country Cooking of Ireland, the use of baking soda in baked goods did not exist in Ireland until 1846, when two New York bakers came to visit. Today, their companies are a household name — Arm & Hammer. Without them, Irish soda bread as we know it today might not even exist.
So, let's get to it before anyone's luck runs out in the kitchen. Soda bread, anyone?
It's best to leave any preconceptions at the door when it comes to soda bread, because they're probably wrong. This is especially true when it comes to ingredients. Colman Andrews, editorial director at The Daily Meal and author of The Country Cooking of Ireland, writes, "True soda bread is the simplest of things: bread made with nothing more than flour, salt, sour milk or buttermilk, and — in place of yeast — baking soda, which reacts with the milk to have a leavening effect."
What many Americans have experienced, though, is basically cake. It's got raisins or currants and it's softened up with eggs. This is fine, but should really be called spotted dog or railway cake, says Andrews, not soda bread, or traditional Irish soda bread.
Robert Ditty's grandmother used to always tell him to leave out the buttermilk overnight so that it would be at room temperature before mixing with the other ingredients.
Sift the Dry Ingredients
Flour right out of the bag tends to contain lumps, which can affect the ratios of ingredients when mixed together. So it's best to sift it into a bowl before using.
Kneading for too long will lead to tough, chewy bread. Ditty kneads for only two minutes in his recipe.
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