Growing up in Ireland, Sharon Floyd remembers her mother baking brown bread every night for the next day. That and tea bread, a loaf made with sultanas (golden raisins) steeped overnight in tea, were “the staples of my childhood,” she says.
Brown bread, which is whole-wheat soda bread, and white soda bread, often flecked with raisins or currants, are the traditional loaves of Ireland. They’re leavened with baking soda instead of yeast so they’re fast to assemble and bake in less than an hour.
Floyd, 45, of Ashburnham, who moved here with her family about 15 years ago, explains that whole-wheat flour in Ireland is different from what’s available here, so she adds wheat bran and flaxseed meal to her dough to make the loaf “a darker color, grainier, and meatier,” she says. “That’s the way I remember it at home.”
Baking some of Ireland’s traditional breads for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 is a fine way to celebrate. If you need help determining what’s authentic (green beer is not), delve into Theodora FitzGibbon’s 1968 volume, “A Taste of Ireland,” or Darina Allen’s “Irish Traditional Cooking,” written almost a decade ago and reissued last year. The 2009 tome “The Country Cooking of Ireland,” by Colman Andrews, provides an in-depth look at Irish culinary history. My own insight started with a pamphlet called “Irish Teatime Recipes: Traditional Cakes From the Emerald Isle,” which my mother brought back from Ireland last year.
Irish baking recipes have peasant roots; they’re frugal in ingredients and technique. Batters were often assembled without eggs, once considered a luxury, and few formulas required more than a bowl and wooden spoon, or your hand. Many breads and cakes have curious names, such as barm brack, spotted dog, pratie oaten, and boiled cake. Boxty bread is made with potato; porter cake, heavy with dried fruits, is fortified with Guinness; and carvie cake is sprinkled with caraway seeds. For so-called boiled cakes, a hot syrup of water or tea, sugar, spices, dried fruit, and a little butter was mixed with flour, then popped into the oven. Moist and dense, these cakes were good keepers.
Keltic Krust Bakery Cafe in West Newton offers a number of the country’s specialties, including whole-wheat and white soda breads, scones, and hot cross buns. Opened in 1991 by a Galway native, the bakery was bought by Christopher Rice and Kathleen Fitzgerald Rice in 2009. “All the original Irish recipes are still here,” says Christopher Rice.
Rice, whose father’s family came from Newry in County Down, Northern Ireland, remembers the Irish breads from his childhood in New York. “My grandmother always had soda bread out,” he says. Hers was a round loaf with raisins and caraway seeds. “You’d cut your own thick piece and the kids would load it up with butter.”
Gingerbread is a favorite in Bridie Hilperts’s family. She makes a recipe her mother, Sarah Gilger, got from a distant cousin, Nora McNeela. Gilger, 91, raised in Killasser in County Mayo, Ireland, has been making the spice bread for 70 years. In turn, Hilperts, who lives in Sudbury, has baked the loaf for her three now-grown children. “It’s something I can whip up quickly because I usually have all the ingredients in the house,” she says.
In addition to brown bread, Floyd, who hails from Ireland’s County Meath and County Cork, makes apple tart, rhubarb crumble, and mincemeat pies, which she learned from her late grandmother Maria Reilly.
“Her secret,” says Floyd, “was you always put in a little extra butter than the recipe asks for.”