Irish soda bread or tea cake?

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Every year around St. Patrick's Day I bake some Irish soda bread. I don't have an old family recipe from my Irish grandmothers, so I usually pull a cookbook off the shelf and settle on a tried recipe with what I thought were the basic ingredients - flour, butter, baking soda, salt, sugar, buttermilk and raisins.

This year, I decided to not finger through the shelf of gravy-stained and dog-eared cookbooks, but instead embrace my iPad sitting on the kitchen counter and google the Irish favorite.

I stumbled across a website for "The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread." Yes, an actual website "to encourage modern bakers to get in touch with their Irish roots."

It continues, " … save a spot on the table for Irish soda bread to remember how far the Irish have come from the days when it was the only thing on the table." A pinch of Irish guilt thrown in for good measure.

The website maintains there are only four ingredients - flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk. "Anything else added makes it a 'Tea Cake!' "

Seeming a bit touchy about the vital distinctions in soda bread ingredients, the website asserts, "A great many Irish-Americans today had ancestors who left Ireland before soda bread was introduced there." The theory is that relatives living in America got recipes from cookbooks or newspapers and turned them into the family recipe. Those recipes made their way back to the Emerald Isle.

Of course the website asks for donations to help support it, but they do give a bit of history on the oldest reference to soda bread, turning bread into cookies and some helpful "Irish links."

They believe that the oldest published soda bread recipe dates back to the November 1836 edition of the Farmer's Magazine. The recipe came from County Down.

"There is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach, and improving the state of the … , " well, you get the point.

Under the "News" tab, you can find the most recent recipe; today's is an "Authentic Irish brown soda bread" published in the St. Cloud Times. The Society for the Preservation of it seems to give a stamp of approval to this recipe. The variable is mixing in whole wheat flour.

Call it what you want, the hearty bread harkens back images of a grandmother sitting daintily with an ornate bone china cup filled with piping hot tea and nearby, a piece of Irish soda bread - and if times were good, a spot of butter.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016

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