Many people assume that the cross in the top of soda bread had religious meaning for Irish people. When Master baker Mary Gleeson, co-owner of Gleeson’s Restaurant & Rooms in Roscommon was asked about the cross tradition by BBC Travel’s Kathleen Mangan, she answered without hesitation “You have to cut a cross in the dough to let the fairies out.”
When asked what happens if you don’t cut a cross in the dough Mary, she giggled, “I don’t know, we’re scared not to,” she replied.
Most of us have seen older family members making soda bread, and learned the method from them. It’s a staple food in most Irish households and made so frequently there is no need for a recipe or even a written down method to make it, it involves throwing in the ingredients in the right order, baking it beautifully and it takes practice to get it just right.
In Gleeson’s Restaurant, there are four types of soda bread and five types of scones offered. The bread is so renowned that Mary has presented it at Embassy events in the United States and food shows in Europe. Mary Gleeson learned the “throwing-in” method from her granny and admitted it took time to perfect. However, sharing her recipe for perfect soda bread, she agrees that soda bread making is all about a light touch, aerating the flour by lifting it in the air and letting it flutter back into the bowl, the real secret behind fluffy bread.
“That’s why you barely mix the buttermilk with the dry ingredients, carefully ease the dough onto the bread board, and never, ever knead it. That pounds the air out of it,” Mary said. These methods are the same no matter the specific ingredients, she added.
Visit Gleesons Restaurant on Market Square, Roscommon where homemade treats including Mary’s Soda Bread is made fresh daily. Or make Mary’s Brown Soda Bread yourself at home. Here is the recipe:
250g wholemeal flour, coarsely ground
125g white flour
60g wheat bran
70g pinhead oatmeal
2 tsp baking soda, sieved
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp honey
Mix dry ingredients and aerate. Add the honey to the buttermilk and mix. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add most of the buttermilk. Mix quickly until just moistened, adding buttermilk as needed for a wet consistency. Turn dough onto a floured board and round it up gently, making it two inches thick. Place on a greased baking sheet and cut a half-inch-deep cross into the top. Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 60 minutes, turning the bread over for the last 10 minutes. Tap on the bottom: a hollow sound means it’s done. Cool on a wire rack covered with a damp tea towel.