Sunday baker: Soda Bread

I wonder why I don’t bake more often?  Today I rediscovered why:

This motley assortment of Things To Be Washed (not least the table) results from a thought of baking a traditional Irish recipe: soda bread.  “I haven’t baked it in years!”* Suddenly, it’s coming back to me, just why.  Look at all the washing up!  This is the dirty little secret which baking TV shows and magazines don’t usually show: the mess of creativity.

*That little phrase “I haven’t baked it in years” will immediately be ringing warning bells in the heads of people who bake properly.  Even I, who bake sporadically, know that the stove knows when you haven’t baked and bitterly resents it.  There is an unspoken attitude of “Oh so NOW you think you want me?” and surprise, surprise, the cake doesn’t rise or the pie burns.  Actually, I do use the oven for cooking, daily, so maybe it’s the baking tins and mixing bowls which have built-up, accreted seething resentment?  Perhaps it’s a conspiracy.  Did the oven act alone?

6 baking problems you don’t find on TV shows

When you watch a TV show involving baking, apart from not showing the washing up, you don’t get to see the 6 problems I managed to find today:

  1. A handwritten recipe in obsolete language/measurements
  2. Getting the right baking tin size
  3. Sourcing the ingredients – how’s your Polish?
  4. Lack of measurement
  5. Stupidity on the part of the recipe compiler
  6. The mess to wash up, afterwards
recipe for soda bread

Let me walk you through my real-life adventure in baking.

1. Obsolete measurements

Here in the UK, we changed currency and measurements from Imperial weights and pounds, shillings and pence when we joined the European Union – something which we are about to undo.  But let’s not mention the storm.

Reader, my recipe begins “1 lb plain flour”.  I stared at it, as one does at a foreign language word.  I had a conception of roughly what that looked like – but not how to find it on my scales.  My scales are supposedly joint weighing, but I had been using them in grammes and kilogrammes.  I began weighing the flour and – well I couldn’t understand the tiny grey digital display – so I decided to convert the amount of 1 lb into grammes – which I was more familiar with weighing.

So I consulted Delia Smith.

The sainted Delia of The Kitchen

Delia Smith is a former home economics (‘cookery teacher’ in new money) and trusted TV cook.  She is so famous that in the UK she is referred to by her first name and everyone knows who you mean “It’s a Delia” [the word ‘recipe’ doesn’t need to be added afterwards, it is understood to be there]

This book was a present given so long ago that her clothing style has just come back into fashion. It dates from 1982.

As a cookery teacher, she gets right to the useful stuff and, before her introduction, gives a page to the businesslike matter of how to convert measurements and work between different oven temperatures etc.


Converting Lbs and Ozs to Grammes and Kilogrammes

2. The Right tin size

For some strange reason, baking tin producers (at the time I purchased mine) neglected to mark their quantity.  So when confronted with two tins, the expert baker will immediately know which is 1 lb, which is 2 lb – the Sunday baker?  Not so much.  A simple “1 lb loaf tin” printed or embossed on the side would have been helpful.  (Hopefully the technology to print sizes of tins on them has now raced to meet the needs of the bewildered gaze of the Sunday baker.)

Thankfully, Delia was consulted and spelt out the dimensions of a 1 lb loaf tin, so I checked and got the right size.

3. Sourcing the ingredients

One of the distinctive features of Irish baking is often the use of buttermilk – a soured milk – despite this hideous word association, IMG_4926it results in a lighter type of scone or bread. I was surprised when a good baker friend recently mourned the difficulty of getting buttermilk.  “I got some, no problem for my soda bread” I said, amazed.  Well, when I got together the ingredients, I was confronted by this mysterious carton.

I had typed in “buttermilk” on a supermarket shopping delivery site and this was stashed in the fridge door along with the milks but…. what was it?  The words on it were in Polish.  It was mystery.  I unscrewed the top and smelt it, delicately.  Yes, it smelt how I expected, but when I poured it into the bread mix, it was more fluid and thin than I’d expected.  I added more flour to absorb the wetness.

4. Lack of measurements

My handwritten recipe simply said “sultanas”.

How much?  There wasn’t even an obsolete measurement here.  If I put in too many, the weight would stop the bread from rising; too few and it wasn’t worth putting them in.  I had very fond memories of soda bread made by my mother, served hot from the oven, and more than edible.

5. Stupidity on the part of the recipe compiler

Looking at the recipe, as the oven thrummed away, expectantly heating itself up – I realised that I had neglected to write in at which point to add the buttermilk.

6.  The Mess to wash up, afterwards

(as dealt with at the start of this post).



Rather edible.  Not quite as delish as Mother made – I think I’d double the sugar.

But no faffing with yeast and giving it hours to prove etc.  One to try again.







One comment

  1. … choking with frustration …. If you must ad lib, stick to cooking, which you do extremely, marvellously, tastily well and which enjoys the touch of a jaunty ad libber. If you vanna bake, don’t bloody well ad lib until you’ve practised with the right chemistry first. Don’t start baking until you’ve wrangled all required ingredients into one place and, instead of recalculating your beautiful imperial recipes (written in the hand of a serial killer I notice), why not use a modern one written in those useless gram things, which, in my ‘umble opinion, ruin the poetry of baking beyond redemption. Ballymaloe recipes are hard to beat for Irish breads and are available online, free, gratis and for nowt. I do share your frustration with baking tins not carrying their sizes and can report that when you buy now, some are. Yer loaf looks tasty and that’s what fruit soda oughta be. Hmmmm warm butter …..

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