One of the many lovely memories I have of being on my holidays in Donegal as a child is the older people making bread. My grandmother, my aunts, and my grandfather’s cousins would bake one or two scones (as they were called soda bread) a day. It always seemed a very social occasion as there were always people around, chatting whilst the work was done. The chatting was mostly in Gaelic (Irish) of course and although I could scarcely understand a word they said, I nonetheless enjoyed those times.
The best part of course was getting to eat the results. My grandmother used to tell me not to eat it until it had cooled but I would and believe me, there is little that tastes as yummy as warm scone with a slather of homemade butter dripping off it (and probably down your chin)!
That was the other thing that made the scone so delicious ~ the liberal use of real homemade butter: salty and soft and delicious stuff it was too. After the butter was made ~ a job that involved a lot of churning of the milk and a job that anyone who happened to be around (visitors included) would get a turn doing as the conversation went on, what was left after the chunks of butter were removed was basically buttermilk and would be used to make the scones.
My grandmother and aunts would fashion the butter with butter paddles (wooden, ridged small paddle like instruments) into pretty shapes and patterns. I used to love doing this ~ producing the most oddly shaped lumps of butter I am sure. Nowadays it is very difficult to get good homemade butter. I was most excited some time back to find a local shop was selling homemade butter. I bought some immediately and came home impatient to try it. It was awful. Lardy and pale and not at all like my grandmother’s homemade butter. It went in the bin.
Sometimes now I will use a butter curler and make little curls of butter that somewhat resemble some of the designs my grandmother and aunts used for their butter. Of course it will never taste the same but it just reminds me of my childhood. (If you too would like to waste some time making butter curls just get yourself a butter curler, dip it in a mug of hot water and lightly drag it along a pound of butter to get little curls of butter).
As a child my grandmother very rarely (if indeed ever) made her scones (bread) using wholemeal flour. In those days if they wanted a brown scone they would have used roughly 3 parts white flour and 1 part bran. Nowadays we use wholemeal flour generally with some white flour to lighten it.
I mainly remember white scone and the delicious current scone where a handful or two of currants, sultanas or raisins would be added to the dry mix prior to the buttermilk going in. My grandmother had a big range in her kitchen and the scones would be baked in there but in earlier times in Ireland the scone would have been baked in a lidded pot over an open fire. Even in later years I remember my great-uncle baking his scones in a pan with a lid on top of his range ~ he maintained it tasted better.
So back to making a scone. There are a number of things you need to know before you begin.
The two most important things you should know is that you must work very quickly once the buttermilk is added to the dry ingredients and to handle the dough as little as possible and NEVER kneed it. I put the dry ingredients into the bowl, have my baking tray beside me floured and ready to go, and the oven heated to the correct temperature so ensuring that in probably less than a minute after I have added the buttermilk to the dry ingredients the scone is in the oven.
I pile the dry ingredients into the bowl, make a dip in the middle and pour in most of the buttermilk then instead of using my hands I cut through it with a dinner knife until the mix is coming together. I then put a little wholemeal flour on my hands and bring the mixture together and put it into my baking tray where I fashion it into a slightly flattened circle. Then I quickly cut a cross in the top using a bread or serrated knife and straight into the oven (this allows the bread to expand beautifully in the oven).
Toward the end of baking (about 5 minutes from the end) I turn the scone over in the oven to make sure it is cooked through.
Once the scone is baked (tap it on the bottom and it should make a hollow sound), I wrap a clean, dampened tea towel around it to ensure the crust is not too hard.
NOTE: Many people find it hard to get buttermilk to make a scone (loaf of soda bread) and this is a problem because the bread really does benefit from it’s use. I ran out of buttermilk one day and hadn’t time to go to the shops to get more so I improvised and it worked out pretty damned well. Of course I had read suggestions before about adding vinegar to milk and the like but none of the ideas I had seen appealed to so I simply used natural yoghurt (which tastes a little like buttermilk) and added milk to it to thin it down a little.
Traditionally none of the variety of extras you see in recipes today would have formed any part of the recipe. Eggs were used to eat not to add into a bread mix; butter most would most certainly not have been added; and nor would sugar either. So my recipe sticks to what would have been the ingredients in traditional Irish soda bread. And the recipe below is so simple and quick and so delicious that you might be tempted never to buy shop bread again!
TRADITIONAL IRISH SODA BREAD
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Baking time: 45 minutes
12 oz (340 g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (113 g) plain white flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Bextartar (Cream of Tartar)
12 fl oz (354 ml) of buttermilk (or if not available, use natural yoghurt thinned a little with milk)
For other conversions go HERE.
NOTE: I don’t add salt to my mix as I think the baking soda is salty enough but others may prefer to add a pinch of salt.
Dinner knife (to mix the ingredients rather than your hands)
Bread knife or other serrated knife to cut the dough
Dampened tea towel (I use a glass cloth as there is no lint on it. I put it under the tap and then wring out with my hands and it is ready for use)
1. Heat the oven to 180 c (350 f)
2. Have your baking tray floured and ready to use
3. Place all the dry ingredients (wholemeal flour, white flour, teaspoon of Bextartar, teaspoon of bread soda) into your bowl
4. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients
5. Pour in most of the buttermilk and mix with the knife, cutting through it to bind it together
6. If needed use the rest of the buttermilk ~ you want a mix that is soft but not dry
7. Put a little flour on your hands and press the dough together
8. Place on the baking tray and fashion into a slightly flattened circle
9. Cut a cross through the dough to a depth of about quarter of an inch
10. Place the pan into the oven immediately and set the timer for 40 minutes
11. After 40 minutes turn the bread over for the final five minutes
12. After 45 minutes tap the bread on the bottom to make sure there is a hollow sound which tells you the bread is ready
13. Wrap the scone in the dampened tea towel and place on a cooling wrack until cold
14. If making, now is the time to make your butter curls!