You can see the recipe for traditional Irish Soda Bread here.
After spending a wonderful month in Ireland with my sister and granddaughter searching for our O’Keeffe ancestors, I was anxious to share my experience with my nine year old grandson, Peter. Among his many interests and hobbies, he loves history and baking so I decided to invite him over for a lesson on making Irish soda bread and intertwine it with O’Keeffe family history.
We set up all the ingredients and utensils. Wheat flour, white cake flour, pinhead oats, wheat bran, wheat germ, brown sugar, salt, bread soda, baking powder, egg, buttermilk. Then I began telling him how England invaded Ireland many hundreds of years ago and took their land from them and made them grow food to send back to England. Our O’Keeffe ancestors, called O’Keeffe Clan, also owned castles. England took those away too. I told Peter I would show him the photos I took of the O’Keeffe castles. He was impressed that our ancestors owned castles.
I asked Peter if he remembered the oats I grew in my grain garden last year. I showed him the pinhead oats I bought in Ireland and explained they are whole oats that have gone through a grinder to chop them up a little. We combined the pinhead oats and 1/2 buttermilk. He cracked an egg which popped out all over the counter. A second try brought success. He stirred it lightly and added remainder of buttermilk. We then discussed how the Irish have had dairy farms for centuries so they always had sour milk or buttermilk.
The Irish mostly lived on potatoes they grew but in the 1840s a disease came on the potatoes and killed them. This is known as the Potato Famine. The Irish weren’t allowed to eat the other vegetables they grew because they had to be sent back to England. Many people left Ireland and came to the United States because they were starving to death. Our great great grandfather O’Keeffe and his brother and sister came here at that time. Many Irish people were very sick and thousands died of starvation. To keep alive, they began making soda bread in Ireland. At that time, almost 200 years ago, the recipe consisted of only flour, salt, soda and buttermilk because they didn’t have anything else to put in it. Over the years people have added different ingredients they like and so this recipe is very different than our O’Keeffe ancestor recipe. You can add whatever you want; dried fruit, nuts, seeds, even chocolate chips. At this point, Peter, exclaimed, “I just love hearing about the history of our ancestors!” A boy after my heart.
Peter measured out all of the dry ingredients except the bread soda. I showed him how the Irish measure the soda into their hand and then rub their hands together allowing the soda to fall into the dry ingredients.
We were ready to toss the dry ingredients into the air several times. Although he thought it strange, he started tossing. Then he said he thought this was a better way because it stirred everything up more.
He made a well in the dry ingredients and poured the pinhead oat mixture and buttermilk egg mixture into the well.
I explained that at this point, in America, we would use a large spoon or rubber spatula to mix this but not so in Ireland. I showed him how to form his hand into a claw and then start mixing the ingredients together. He was eager to try it.
We sprinkled the bread board with flour and poured the mixture onto it and sprinkled flour on the dough. It was shaped into a flat round and transferred to the baking stone. We talked about how the Irish have special ways of doing things. I then showed him how they use a knife to make a cross on top of the bread to “keep the Devil away.” Then they poke each section with the knife to “let the fairies out.” He liked that.
I reminded him that during the Potato Famine, they didn’t have ovens. The dough was put in a cast iron Dutch oven like his Uncle Joseph’s. It was then baked over a fire.
Peter could hardly wait until it was baked so he could take it home. As soon as he got in the car with this mom and sister, he started the history lesson on ancestors and soda bread. His 16 year old sister said, “I didn’t know any of this!”
One of the rewards of a grandmother is to see grandchildren interested in passing down family traditions. I have seen this with my older grandchildren and I am sure I will see this with Peter.