Monday, March 17, 2014

Nellie's Irish Soda Bread

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

While St. Patrick himself probably wouldn't love how modern people choose to celebrate his feast day - he was kind of a giant stick in the mud, by our standards - my family traditionally tries to get together and do something festive. My grandmother likes to make corned beef and cabbage for my grandfather, and while it might not be an authentically Irish dish, it's the Irish American version of bacon and cabbage, and is thus totally legitimate to eat on St. Patrick's Day, or any day you feel like honoring any Irish immigrants you might have in your family. Don't let the naysayers who half read a Wikipedia article fool you!

One of our favorite traditions is making Irish soda bread, and this year, I got to be the one who made it! I was a little intimidated to be the one in charge of making this family favorite, but I am pleased to report that everything worked out very well.

There's only one character to host a post like this, so I'm very pleased to formally introduce you to...

Nellie O'Malley! Nellie was originally introduced in Meet Samantha as a servant girl who moves in with her family to work for Samantha's snooty, generally terrible neighbors. Throughout Sam's series, Nellie winds up going through pretty much some of the worst things imaginable for a nine year old Irish American kid growing up in 1904, and in general has a not super happy life: before working for the Rylands, she had to work in a thread factory to help support her family and thus couldn't go to school, and while she makes a true friend in Samantha, Nellie's parents die and she and her sisters are forced to live with their alcoholic uncle before being put in an orphanage.

Seriously, she really didn't draw a great hand.

Fortunately, in Changes for Samantha, Nellie and her two sisters are adopted by Samantha's Aunt Cornelia and Uncle Gard, and the four girls are raised by the Edwards as if they were their own children. When Samantha's movie Samantha: An American Girl Holiday was released, Nellie got her own book (Nellie's Promise) and a doll of her was produced, along with a few outfits and accessories that would have gone along with her life with the Edwards.

Nellie has been one of my favorite AG characters pretty much since I read Meet Samantha, and so I've been waiting patiently to find the right one to adopt from eBay. She's the only historical doll with clear Irish ancestry, and she's also the only doll that represents my family's background. While we don't have a ton of Irish family recipes, Nellie actually has a connection to the Italian side of my family, too! She and Cornelia help out at a settlement house, where new immigrants (who are mostly Italian and German) come to learn important life skills for living in America like how to speak English and how to handle American money. She and Cornelia frequently cook and bake with these women, so I think it's a great way to introduce some cuisine that otherwise isn't covered by any current AG historical characters.

Sam is so excited to have her best friend here!

Anyway, back to the soda bread. Soda bread is a quick bread that is a pretty traditional product of a country that's been pretty traditionally poor. It doesn't require too many ingredients and is pretty difficult to screw up, unlike a lot of other breads (as I have experienced first hand), so it's generally not something you need to worry about wasting ingredients making.

Baking soda was introduced to Ireland in the 1840's, so it's pretty safe to assume that's when loaves of the sweet, slightly tangy bread started popping up on people's tables. It gets stale quickly, so it was made every few days and served with the main meal, not as a dessert, although I know now some people choose to serve it with dessert instead. Although there are some who have suggested soda bread was first invented during the Irish Hunger of 1845, there's little evidence to suggest that and it seems more likely that the dish remained popular as a cheap source of food that could be made quickly and was relatively filling.

And since it's Irish, of course it gets served on St. Patrick's Day! Like most traditional recipes, there are countless different ways it can be prepared, and I used the recipe my grandmother's been making pretty much since she married my grandfather.

(That might be an exaggeration, but you have to admit, it sounds nice!)

Unlike a lot of other cake and bread recipes, this recipe calls for literally all of your dry ingredients (except the raisins) to be mixed together in one bowl. In this case, flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, caraway seeds and sugar are all mixed together in a bowl and set aside while you deal with the wet ingredients.

The recipe calls for melted shortening, but we use butter instead. I really don't like shortening, it smells and tastes kind of strange. I can't believe people eat it straight on toast!

You add sour cream and beaten eggs to the butter (or shortening) and then mix it all together.

Then dump in the flour and mix everything together until the ingredients are combined. You'll want a lumpy dough, and most recipes discourage overmixing it. This also isn't a dough to knead, so once everything looks lumped together, toss in the raisins and fold them in gently.

This all gets put in an eight inch cake pan. At this point, you're supposed to cut a cross into the top of the dough to give it the iconic shape (and to ward off the devil and protect the household), but my dough refused to be cut and just oozed back into shape no matter how hard I tried. Oh well.

I guess if we need to preform an exorcism on our house, we'll know whose fault it is.

After spending about fifty minutes to an hour in the oven (mine took about fifty five minutes) at 350 degrees, the result should be a surprisingly large muffin-looking thing that smells absolutely delicious.

Once it cooled off, it was off to my grandparent's house!

This is a lot different from Uncle Gard's automobile...

Fun fact: when I was really little, like three or four, I actually thought my grandmother was at least partly Irish, too. As I'm sure some of you may have noticed, we tend to go a little crazy decorating for the holidays at my house, which is a tradition my mom picked up from my grandma. Since she went all out for St. Patrick's Day, I sort of just assumed that she might be mostly Italian, but had an Irish grandparent or something in there, too. I mean, why else would she get so into it?

As it turns out, I was totally wrong. My grandparents are actually from the first generation of immigrant families that really started to be okay with the idea of marrying someone of a different background than your family was. My grandmother is 100% Italian, and her parents immigrated to America in the early 1900's. My grandfather is mostly Irish, and on the day of their wedding, his grandmother lamented that he wasn't marrying a nice Irish girl! How weird is that? Considering I've never had any pressure put on me by any member of my family to date or marry or even just be friends with someone whose family history matched ours, it's just so odd to me to think that was once (and still is) a big deal to people. Interestingly, a lot of their friends are similar pairs, even throwing in different religious backgrounds into the mix sometimes.

St. Patrick's Day itself celebrates St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick was allegedly from Roman Britain, and as a teenager was kidnapped by Gaelic pirates and held as a slave for several years. During his time in Ireland, he found God and allegedly with his help managed to escape back to Britain, where he became a priest. He then traveled back to Ireland to introduce Christianity to the native Irish, which he was apparently very good at. How much of that is true is of course kind of up in the air, since it's not like we have a huge amount of first person accounts of this story, but it's still a fun saint story, and it's refreshingly free from brutal murder just because you didn't want to marry some guy who didn't like that you practiced a different faith than he did, looking at you St. Lucia.

Shamrocks are supposed to symbolize the clover St. Patrick used to teach the Irish about the Holy Trinity, but there's some scholarly debate over how much of that is true, and how much of it is just an invention of a publication from the 1700's which caught on with people like George Washington and the cherry tree. It is true however that the number three is very significant to pre-Christian Ireland, so I guess it's not entirely out of the question that he would have used it as a tool to help symbolize his point and appeal to the local population. St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated in the United States since the late 1700's, and while not a national holiday (although apparently it's recognized in Suffolk County, Massachusetts and Chatham County, Georgia), it's still incredibly widely celebrated, as I'm sure you all know.

So, how did the soda bread taste, Gwen?

I think it came out really well! My aunt, who is especially fond of it, admitted to eating four pieces and took more of it home, which I am taking as an enormous compliment. I was really worried this was going to turn out like my King Cake disaster, especially when I saw how much it had risen in the oven. Fortunately, it was completely cooked through and had a really nice texture and flavor to it.

Your bread should be tender, dense, and hopefully a little moist in the center. The crust that forms looks really thick, but it's actually not very, and it can be pretty crumbly, so I recommend eating it with a fork or at least a napkin if you can. Our recipe doesn't call for that many raisins, so they're easy to avoid if you're not a fan, although adding more or other dried fruit is also totally an option.

So, happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! I hope you enjoyed this peek into what my family got up to this year to celebrate.

I know I did. It might be time to make another soda bread...


  1. (This is robinhoo, but I'm commenting from my doll Audra's account!)

    YUM, yum, yum, yum. That looks delicious and beautiful. Soda bread is one of my favorite things ever, and I totally failed to many any this year. You've inspired me... must make soda bread soon.

    And I wanted to let you know that Audra has nominated you for the prestigious Liebster Award, if you would like to play. :) (If not, it's totally okay, no pressure!)

    1. Aw that's awesome, thank you so much for nominating me! I am more than happy to participate, I love these kinds of things. c:

  2. Happy St Patrick's Day! Irish soda bread is delicious, I'm glad yours turned out nicely. Nellie is one favorite characters too, and I hope to find one of her too to keep my Samantha company.

    1. I'm glad too, it's nice to know I can make some kinds of bread without things going terrifically wrong, ahaha. Good luck finding a Nellie! She is totally a worthwhile addition to a collection. c:

  3. Nice article! Thanks! Love the recipe and your dialog that goes with it. You are very talented!

  4. I love Irish soda bread! I have always looked forward to indulging in sampling different kinds from various bakeries in town during this time of year. But hands down, my mom makes the best! Your recipe is an exact duplicate of my moms...pretty cool! I'm glad you had success with the recipe. Your pictures are great!

    1. That's so cool, and thanks for the compliments! Did she make it this year?

  5. "My grandfather is mostly Irish, and on the day of their wedding, his grandmother lamented that he wasn't marrying a nice Irish girl! How weird is that? "

    Your Italian relatives were probably HORRIFIED your Nonna didn't marry a boy from wherever they were from in Italy. My great-grandparents apparently were not thrilled their granddaughter married... a Sicilian (American)! Though their youngest daughter married an American from the south. Ethnic prejudice was totally the norm back then. My dad and uncle both married outside their ethnicity. My mom is Yankee/Scandinavian/Pennsylvania Dutch/Russian Jewish and my aunt is Irish-American.

    1. They 100% were not. My grandmother's (not Nonna) parents were essentially a second set of parents to my grandfather and provided him a safe space from his alcoholic father. I'm well aware of the history of ethnic prejudice, but not everyone's experience is identical. :)

      Additionally, the point you quoted was intended as a tongue in cheek comment comparing today's society with that of the past. Sorry for the confusion!