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“Funny, just thinking about the bread, I can smell the roasted caraway seeds coming out of the toaster, and visualize the melting butter…” wrote my dad in an email when I asked him for Gammy’s soda bread recipe. “Memory is a powerful thing.”
"Gammy" is what my father and his five siblings called their grandmother. To everyone else, she was Marie Phelan, born near Galway, on the western coast of Ireland, in 1888. She immigrated to the States when she was just sixteen and, like so many Irish immigrant women at that time, found work as a domestic servant in New York City, where she stayed nearly her whole life. She didn’t return to Ireland to visit until she was an adult.
Dad, the youngest of his siblings, was only six when Gammy died; his memories of her are pretty few, and most of them come from the year she lived with his family, the year before she died. These memories seem to focus specifically on the stash of chocolate nonpareils or M&M’s or “those candied fruit slices” she kept in her room, which she would dole out under the condition you promised to eat your dinner. ("I always failed," said Dad.)
Dad doesn’t recall if Gammy was a cook in the house where she worked, for a family called Rogers. But “I understand Gammy was a very competent cook,” he said, meaning, of course, more than competent: Her recipes are how I know Gammy, beyond whom my sense of my family’s history fades out like an old song. I feel lucky to have the recipe for her (much loved and equally teased) fruitcake, her Christmas rum balls, and her soda bread.
Her soda bread is a round, dense loaf made from an amazingly sticky dough—mostly fruit strapped into flour via buttermilk. Currants and raisins Dalmatian-spot the pale dough, caraway seeds are mandatory, and the bread is even better toasted (and amply buttered) than fresh. The recipe is a simple one, and also “truly an approximation,” as Dad said, texting me a picture of his loaf: Gammy’s recipes are all pretty vague, of the “bake in a slow oven” and “knead until it feels right” variety.
Her soda bread recipe calls for “enough buttermilk to wet” and has three steps, all of them trusting that readers will be able to fill in the gaps for themselves. It’s possible that the typed recipe is a bit of an approximation or translation itself: My father tapped it out on a typewriter as a teenager, copying it and several other recipes he didn’t want to lose track of from his mother’s notebook of handwritten recipes (a notebook in which she had copied her mother's recipes).
On the same typewritten page is another Irish soda bread recipe from the Landmark Tavern, an Irish pub on 11th Avenue in New York. There are a couple of iterations of Landmark soda bread floating around the internet; it’s significantly sweeter and more cake-like, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. I am a sucker for buttermilk and for caraway, and so I prefer Gammy’s.
Irish soda bread is traditional for St. Patrick’s Day, but the bread is such a favorite that, when my dad was a kid, it would occasionally make other appearances throughout the year, too. They would double the recipe, since there were eight soda bread-hungry mouths to feed, and nine with Gammy. With that many people, there was no place to eat but the long dining room table, and, said Dad, it felt like a holiday all the time.
- 4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon butter (or, as the original recipe calls for, Crisco)
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 cup currants
- 1 tablespoon caraway seeds (or more, if you like)
- 2 cups buttermilk