Morphing Irish Soda Bread into Cookies
Notes come in every-so-often saying, more or less, "My sainted Irish grandmother/aunt/etc always used sugar, eggs, and (insert ingredient here) in her "Traditional Irish Soda Bread" and it was delicious. How can you say it isn't traditional Irish soda bread?"
Around St. Patrick's Day each year news editors watch "The Quiet Man" (one of my favorite movies) and thoughts turn to publishing "Traditional" soda bread recipes. Reams of newsprint are then devoted to "Irish" traditional cooking.
Most of the time there is nothing "traditional Irish" about them although they are great recipes. (Note: The same people who bring you "traditional Irish recipes" are the same Major Metropolitan newspaper editors that print a four-leaf clover at the top of the "St. Patrick's Day" page instead of the three-leaf shamrock.)
A great many Irish-Americans today had ancestors who left Ireland before soda bread was introduced there. And who could blame a great-grandmother or other relative living in America for getting an "Irish soda bread" recipe from a cookbook or newspaper and making it for their family? That is a family tradition that should be carried on. Most of those recipes were for "tea cakes", a fancy bread served to impress the guests while soda bread was the "Wonder Bread" of the day and not something you would serve to visitors if you could help it.
Honor your grandma, great-grand aunt, or whomever you remember making delicious bread by making it for your family and pass the tradition on, but how about trying out the recipe for the bread that came before the family tradition? How about making "Traditional Irish Soda Bread"?
"Corned Beef and Cabbage" is considered a traditional Irish dish now although it's really a traditional Irish-American meal created around 1900 when Irish immigrants substituted the cheaper corned beef for traditional Irish bacon (not the frying pan kind). I still enjoy both!
The creation of soda bread and "Corned Beef and Cabbage" came about not to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but as a result of poverty and the need to find inexpensive ways to feed a large family.
The American soda bread with nuts, sugar, etc has made its way back to Ireland some time ago so that people today will often brag about getting a traditional Soda Bread recipe from their friend who just moved here from Ireland. So, it must be "traditional", Right?
Truth be told, the Irish friend's mother probably got the jazzed-up version from someone returning from America years ago and liked it. What's not to like? It's a cake, not bread. And these Americanized versions have spread back to Ireland, home of Soda Bread.
A number of books with incorrect soda bread recipes usually have a note "I got this recipe from my friend whose grandmother made this for her family." Grandma probably knew the difference but preferred to make "spotted dog". And who wants to explain why the grandkids are eating something that goes by the name of "spotted dog" or worse names.
It happens every year around St. Patrick's Day!
In 2003 one major city newspaper's young cooking expert wrote about her family's "traditional Irish Soda bread" recipe. Her grandmother cut it out of a women's magazine in Boston during the 1950's but as far as she was concerned this was a recipe for "traditional" Irish soda bread even though she used whipped cream in it and a few other exotic things.
In 2004 a San Francisco writer penned a nice article about how his grandmother told him about soda bread and that adding all sorts of extras wasn't really soda bread. So, what does his editor do? He/She includes a soda bread recipe in the article that had heavy cream, baking powder, sugar, eggs, and a few other non-traditional items in it. I guess his Irish grandmother didn't get a chance to proof read the article. Not sure the editor read the original article.
One lady in a major city has been winning "Irish Soda Bread" contests for more than a decade with a recipe that violates every rule of being an Irish soda bread. She is a fabulous baker but has never made an Irish Soda Bread in her kitchen as far as we know. This shows that not only are American bakers confused about what an Irish Soda Bread is, but judges have no idea of what they are judging.
Once I pushed judges to the limit to see what they would do when I entered my favorite chocolate soufflé mini-cakes in the "Irish Baking Competition" in New Orleans. I discretely observed the judges (chefs from local restaurants who were probably more French than Irish) and they really liked the chocolate soufflé. They gave all the appearance of awarding my creation with the prize but the head of the event, who apparently knew something about Irish baking, frantically ran over and nixed their choice. The judges only knew what they liked.
And there lies the confusion in America about Irish soda bread. People like to jazz things up when they can (including me) and each generation adds its own contribution so that the recipe evolves over a very short time into something completely different from the original. Tasty, but not Traditional! The most common mistake is to make "Spotted Dog" (same ingredients as soda bread but with sugar/raisins added) and call it "Traditional Soda Bread."
The Food Network's Bobby Flay, a 4th generation Irish-American, did a special in 2003 called "Tasting Ireland" (repeated each St. Patrick's Day) during which he visited a Dublin bakery that produced loads of soda bread daily for the city's population. Their recipe ingredients consisted of:
white flour, preferably unbleached
bread soda (baking soda)
Sour milk or buttermilk to mix
The food Network didn't post the bakery recipe (probably a secret) but one provided by Irish cook book author Darina Allen. Click here for her recipe at the Food Network
The traditional Irish recipe has been "jazzed" up by a great many cooks with all kinds of ingredients and, as Seinfeld would say "not that there's anything wrong with that!" but it isn't "Traditional Irish Soda Bread."
In most cases it's a delicious tea cake (or spotted dog) but not a soda bread as made by traditional bakers today . (Am I getting the point across?)
To appeal to our modern addiction to sugar, more and more bakers in Ireland are adding lots of sugar to their "traditional" bread to increase sales and that's ok. We can't blame them for trying to "make a buck." Even the Irish food sites sell "tea cakes" under the name "soda bread."
It reminds me of the time I saw a tourist trinket for sale in Ireland that had "Made in Japan" stamped on it but tourists didn't know it because it was written in Gaelic. :-)) Those trinkets are sitting on shelves all over the world now and bragged on as original "Irish ceramics."
Morphing bread into cookies
Here is an extreme example of food morphing, but a soda bread can turn into something else over time. (these are general ingredients. The amount of each ingredient would obviously affect the outcome)
Start with the main ingredients of Flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk and you have soda bread.
Jazz it up with eggs and sugar and you have a soda cake. (eggs increase the raising)
Add butter, vanilla to the ingredients and you have sugar cookies
Add chocolate chips and you have chocolate chip cookies.
Now as we add ingredients to the basic recipe at what point does it become something other than "traditional" soda bread? Do we still call it "Traditional Irish Soda Bread" even after we add chocolate chips to it?
I judged one competition where someone actually entered an Irish Soda Bread with chocolate chips in it. Another competition I judged had to be renamed from "Irish Soda Bread" to "Irish Baking Contest" because nobody entered a soda bread. Every entry had been "morphed" into a tea cake of one sort or another.
A judge in another city who used my judging sheet (which I consider to be very strict) told me the other judges thought it wasn't strict enough because some of the "breads" were dreadful and they wanted to take more points away than permitted on the form.
Some families have been very creative over the generations since their ancestor moved to America (some before soda bread was introduced to Ireland) and have improved the taste of their creation.
A New York paper's 2006 news article listed about 20 "Irish Soda Bread" recipes from subscribers and all but one were for "tea cakes" not soda bread. But, God Bless them, most of them were carrying on a recipe that their Irish "Granny" made when they were kids. That's a great family tradition and should not be lost.
So enjoy those great family baking creations as I do (send me the recipe), but please don't advertise it as "traditional Irish Soda Bread." Somewhere over time it "morphed" into a delicious tea cake worthy of serving to a visiting Bishop!