Heirloom Recipes

Gammy's Irish Soda Bread—For St. Patrick's Day and Every Day

March 14, 2016

“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.

Soda bread, toasted, with butter.

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.)

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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.

Left, soda bread text from my dad. Right, my own loaf.

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.

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Top Comment:
“It's lovely to see different recipies for Irish Soda bread but the one I grew up with in Ireland only has flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk. I make it often and it's beautiful in its plainness. I'll try your recipie and see how it goes. ”
— Diana

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.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Graeme Mathieson
    Graeme Mathieson
  • Dawna
  • Diana
  • Jock
  • Caroline Lange
    Caroline Lange
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Graeme M. March 15, 2016
I will be trying this recipe or recipes over the next few days at home sounds great....cheers Graeme M.
Graeme M. March 15, 2016
where do we buy this cookbook of Darina Allens "forgotten skills of Cooking please? can we buy it here in Australia and at what cost? thank you and cheers Graeme M.
Jock March 16, 2016
The Ballymaloe Cookbook, revised and updated 50-year anniversary edition: Classic recipes from Myrtle Allen’s..., available on Amazon.
Diana March 16, 2016
Hi Graeme, the ISBN of the book is 978-1-85626-788-5. I don't know how you get it in Australia but I hope this helps.
Graeme M. March 15, 2016
To Caroline Lange....Worcestershire sauce is pronounced woostersheer or shire depending what school you went to ok lol cheers Graeme M. Australia
Diana March 16, 2016
In the UK they call it Woostersheer
Graeme M. March 15, 2016
in the first recipe for Irish Soda Bread it says 1 cup Crisco...being in Australia what is Crisco ?
Caroline L. March 16, 2016
hi graeme, crisco is a brand of solid vegetable shortening! i use butter instead, with great results.
Dawna March 15, 2016
I love hearing the story...I love the words like an old song....
My family came over from Scotland and I feel that wistful heartful nostalgia imagining making bread on a slow fire...w wood I chopped?! Thank you for sharing and stirring the heart embers.
Diana March 15, 2016
It's lovely to see different recipies for Irish Soda bread but the one I grew up with in Ireland only has flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk. I make it often and it's beautiful in its plainness. I'll try your recipie and see how it goes.
Caroline L. March 15, 2016
it sounds wonderful, diana! would you share your recipe? i hope you like this one.
Diana March 15, 2016
Hi Caroline, the recipe is as follows;
225g / 8oz Wholemeal Flour
225g / 8oz White Flour
1 tsp Salt
1tsp Bicarbonate of Soda (Baking Soda)
375ml - 450ml or 13 - 16fl oz of Buttermilk.

Oven has to be set to 230*C/450*F/Gas Mark 8 for the first 15mins and then turned down to 200*C/400*F/Gas Mark 6 for the remaining 20-25 mins.

Method is to mix all the dry ingredients together and then make a well in the centre of the mix and pour in about 375ml / 13fl oz of the buttermilk. Start mixing with your hands (it will get very messy) and scrape up all the dry mix from the bottom. Add more buttermilk a little at a time if you need it but don't wait or mix for too long or the dough will be close textured when cooked which is not what you want. Pull it from the bowl onto a floured surface and knead as briefly as you can. Roll by hand into a round and press the top lightly to flatten it very slightly.

I then put it on a flat baking tray / sheet pan lined with grease proof paper. Then I take a very sharp knife and cut a deep cross into the bread (this is blessing it) WITHOUT cutting all the way through (but almost) and then taking a four-tined fork, I prick the apex of each quarter once (to let the fairies out).

Bake in the oven at the high temperature for 15mins, then again for another 15 at the lower temperature. Turn it over at the end of the cooking time for 5-10 mins to finish it off. You should hear a "hollow sound" if you knock your knuckles against the bottom of the bread when you take it out of the oven. If not put it back in for another 5 and test again as you may have used too much buttermilk initially.
It's worth noting that you might need several goes at this to make it correctly because it's all in the feel. I've made it lots of times and even now I'll over or under "wet" it, especially if I haven't made it I a while.

I usually eat it warm from the oven with butter and preserves (We call preserves Jam in Ireland - I think it's called Jelly in the USA)

Anyway, eat same day fresh or toasted the following day, it won't keep for long.

My recipe comes from the Irish Chef, Darina Allen's book "Forgotten Skills of Cooking". It's got approx 700 Irish or near Irish recipes and is fabulous.
Caroline L. March 15, 2016
to let the fairies out! i can't wait to try this. thank you, diana!
Jock March 16, 2016
Diana, I make the same recipe but I add a splash of honey for sweetness and a tsp of melted butter to the mix. the butter keep the bread from drying out too quickly so it is good for a few days.
Diana March 16, 2016
Sounds good Jock. Will try it. Thanks for sharing!