As some of you may know, my mom’s parents were from Ireland. Nanny was a wonderful home cook, bringing her Irish food traditions from Belfast to Brooklyn where her Italian, German, and Jewish neighbors influenced her cooking in America.
But Nanny wasn’t the only one to bring Irish food traditions, my grandfather ruled the kitchen on weekend mornings. According to my mom, Saturday mornings would be met with plenty of hot tea, eggs, bacon (or ham or sausages), potato farls, and soda bread. My grandfather would fry bacon, set it aside, then in the same pan, immediately fry the eggs in the bacon fat. From there, in went slices of plain soda bread, fried quickly on both sides until lightly brown. Can you imagine? Heaven!!! Unfortunately, my grandfather died before I was born, but I still grew up enjoying his Irish Soda Bread, first made by my mother, and now my dad.
My father has tweaked the recipe over the years, as I’m sure my grandfather had tweaked his own recipe. My guess is that if you ask 10 different people how they make Irish soda bread you will get 10 different recipes. What is generally accepted throughout is a combination of flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk. The baking soda and buttermilk give this quick bread its rise. Another common practice is cutting a cross deep on top. Tradition states that the cross is to let the devil out and ward off evil. Practically speaking, it also helps the heat penetrate the center of the loaf as well as providing the guidelines to break the bread up beautifully when served. My mom recalls my grandfather usually making plain soda bread, and only occasionally making a sweeter version with raisins. This makes sense as years ago the addition of sugar, dried fruits, or eggs would have been a treat and only done on special occasions.
The recipe below is my version of my dad’s recipe, slightly sweet and full of raisins. This loaf is perfect for breakfast, snacking, in lunch boxes, and definitely with a cup of tea or two. I do make other soda breads, a hearty Brown Soda Bread (made with whole wheat flour) and plain White Soda Bread that is unsweetened and wonderful with soups and stews- or fried eggs and bacon. Those recipes will show up here, but first I’d like to introduce this lovely raisin studded Irish Soda Bread.
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raisins or currants (my dad loads his with raisins and uses up to 2 cups)
1¼ -1¾ cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450°F.
In a large bowl use a pastry blender to cut butter into flour.
Using a wooden spoon, stir in sugar, salt, and baking soda. Add the raisins or currants and mix well.
Pour in 1¼ cups buttermilk and mix, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be soft, slightly sticky, but not too wet. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead it just enough to completely bring it together. Shape into a round about 1½ -inches deep. Transfer to cast iron skillet or lined baking sheet. Using a sharp knife or bench scraper cut a cross on it, deep- but not completely through.
Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 400°F and continue baking for an additional 30 minutes. The bread is done when it is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Plum Pudding is a traditional Christmas dessert and very common in England and Ireland. For Americans, the name itself is rather confusing as this dessert contains neither plums nor is it a pudding in the Jell-O sense of the word. The “plums” are actually a pre-Victorian term for raisins and pudding is a reference to dessert in general. Some compare plum pudding to fruit cake, but I respectfully disagree. My family’s plum pudding is not heavy and dense like a fruitcake. It is light in texture, but very rich in flavor; heady with cinnamon, cloves, mace, and brandy. Served with a dollop of chilled hard sauce which begins melting as soon as it hits the warm pudding… it’s like tasting Christmas.
As I discovered during research, plum pudding has a lot of history. Dating back to medieval times, it is a steamed or boiled cake traditionally made on the Sunday before Advent begins. This generous lead time (and a bit of brandy) allows the cake to “ripen” during the weeks before Christmas. In addition to raisins, the cake contains nuts, breadcrumbs, sugar, suet, eggs, milk, brandy, and spices. The highlight of Christmas dinner, the pudding is steamed again to warm through, doused with more brandy, topped with a sprig of holly and set ablaze just as it’s presented to guests.
My family’s plum pudding recipe dates back over 100 years. Aunt Annie, born in the 1880s, was my grandmother’s aunt. Though I don’t know where she got the recipe, I do know that my grandmother made it throughout my father’s childhood, and then passed the recipe on to my mother, who continues to make it to this day. The handwritten recipe from my grandmother refers to the pudding as “Aunt Annie’s Plum Duff.” It seems that centuries ago, the pudding would have been steamed or boiled in cloth, but during the Victorian era the cloth was replace by pudding molds. That said, modern recipes for “duff” do exist and usually instruct the reader to boil the pudding in cloth rather than “pudding” recipes that use a mold. Perhaps my great great aunt originally boiled her pudding in cloth? Unfortunately, I’ll never know. What I do know is that my grandmother steamed her puddings in coffee cans lined with buttered wax paper. And today, I use pudding molds.
This year, the pudding almost didn’t happen. It is getting tougher and tougher to find suet (NOT the kind you get at the garden store to feed the birds). I actually stumbled across some quite by chance at a butcher shop in Boston just a couple of weeks ago. The other ingredients are pretty standard pantry items, and though it’s a two day process, most of the time is hands-off and the technique is very easy. Once the mixture is in the molds, they are steamed for a couple of hours and cooled. After cooling, they are removed from the molds. The molds are washed, the puddings rewrapped in clean parchment, returned to the molds, splashed with more brandy, and tucked away in the fridge until Christmas Day. Before serving, the pudding is steamed again to warm through. Hard Sauce is passed along with it… a creamy combination of butter, confectioners sugar, and- you guessed it, more brandy!
What does it say about me as a child that even then I loved Aunt Annie’s Plum Duff? I knew that this was no ordinary dessert… a generations old recipe, a “cake” steamed in coffee cans on the stove, then steamed again and served with a boozy butter + sugar concoction, plus the whole operation completed a month in advance. This was definitely not happening at my friends’ houses.
I am so grateful for this splattered and tattered heirloom recipe, a direct connection to my past, written in my grandmother’s hand. If you are up for an old fashioned dessert, do try this. You don’t even need to light it on fire… but if you do, please have a fire extinguisher nearby. Safety first!
2½ cups of raisins
1 cup finely chopped fresh white beef suet (pick apart and remove membrane, then chop)
1 cup chopped walnuts
1½ jiggers brandy (4½ Tablespoons)
4 cups lightly packed breadcrumbs (large loaf of day old bread, crusts removed, and pulled apart)
2 cups milk to which 2 teaspoons baking soda has been added
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup packed brown sugar
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground cloves
¼ teaspoon mace
Combine raisins, suet, walnuts, and brandy. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day-
Butter molds and line with parchment paper.
Combine breadcrumbs, raisin-walnut mixture, milk, eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and mace. Mix well.
Carefully spoon pudding mixture into lined molds, filling 2/3 full. Top each with another piece of parchment, then covered with lids. If you have extra pudding, it can be steamed in a buttered mason jar.
Steam in gently simmering water for 2 hours. Maintain water level so that it comes halfway up the sides of the molds.
Serve warm with hard sauce or soft custard sauce.
The pudding can be eaten the same day, but traditionally it is allowed to “ripen” for at least a week, or as long as a year. If you aren’t serving it right away, remove molds from water and allow to cool. Carefully remove puddings from molds, peeling away parchment. Thoroughly wash and dry and molds, then reline with parchment and return puddings to molds. Drizzle a splash of brandy on top of each, cover with additional piece of parchment and place lids on top. Refrigerate until ready to use. Before serving, steam puddings again for 2-3 hours. Serve with hard sauce* or soft custard sauce.