Spoiler alert: The secret is butter. And being Niall Duffy.
If you’ve been to one of several farmers markets around town, you’ve likely seen Two and a Half Irish-Men’s booth, with its piles of quickbreads, scones, and soda breads. The baker himself is quick to offer you a sample, which is how I got lured into his evil web of deliciousness. I’ll blame it on my son, though, who is four and did that thing where he went to grab the proffered sample but then paused and looked at me with an expression that meant, “What does the ol’ stick in the mud have to say about this, I wonder?”
To his shock and surprise, I am desperately in love with Irish soda bread. It is my favorite thing about St. Patrick’s Day, and I could not for the life of me construct a reason why he shouldn’t be able to have any and I should. Just one sample did it, and now we are lifers.
Niall got his start in, of all things, explosives. Chemistry, math, and sport science were his jams in college and grad school, but when things started going south with the economy in 2009, he and his wife, Jennie (a Pittsburgh native), began to think seriously about relocating to the States.
Jennie had worked in Richmond before, but Niall and their three kids had never lived here for any amount of time. By January 2014, he was in, like with green card and everything. But he couldn’t get a job-job at first, so he just started baking at home for fun, minding the kids, and lovingly reconstructing what his mum had taught him.
Then, he showed up at the Carytown Farmers Market. No registration, no sign, nothing. Just a bunch of things to eat.
“There was a police officer there, Patrick Warner, and his assistant Kim,” says Niall. “They just gave me a chance, and I’m so grateful.”
Meanwhile, he is patting down scone dough (I got my choice between cranberry chocolate chip and raisin–I went with the former because you only live once, you know?). Did you know that Irish butter is better butter because it has a higher fat content and is probably cultured (like yogurt) for more flavor. Kerrygold is the way to go, he says, but he can’t buy it at bulk prices, so mostly he has to settle for the highest quality butter he can get. He shows me how when you break apart the butter slab, it crumbles a little. With Kerrygold, you don’t get that crumble, and the resulting crumb of the finished baked good will be more tender.
Now, Niall spends six days a week baking and/or going to markets. Niall doesn’t make anything with preservatives, though he has discovered the secret of naturally preserving via a little honey or apple cider vinegar, so it’s crucial to keep baking. He’s learned a lot about doing things in bulk, particularly with soda bread. You can’t just keep doubling and tripling baking soda amounts–it doesn’t work that way. He’s even begun to make his own recipes, beginning with a Guinness gingerbread. His Guinness cupcakes hadn’t hit the oven yet when I had to leave. I guess worse things could happen (considering I left with a bag full of hot-from-the-oven scones and half a loaf of tea brack, which, with its gingery raisiny moistness might be my favorite), but at the time, it felt like a tragedy.
And yes, he bakes it all out of his home, although he’d love to have an off-site space soon. Rumors have reached his ears of family members wanting their dining room back.
Ella, Niall and Jennie’s youngest, is four and my new best friend. She hops up beside me while her dad bakes these scones just inches from her nose, and she barely even notices. Is that the secret? Baking for a living so that it’s no longer a delectable novelty that calls to your child like a buttery siren?
What she really wants, she says, is a princess cake. Mommy made one for her for her birthday. Daddy, from the other room, calls back in a wounded tone, “I made it! Mommy decorated it!” Ella grins at me, and I scarf another slice of tea brack and assure her that I made a dump truck cake recently, and decorating it was the hardest part.
Then it’s time to leave with scones cooling in a bag and Ella stowed in my purse (just kidding, I do not actually steal children). Niall graciously offered to share a recipe of his in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. He urges you to try it, and I urge you to stop by his stall and let him talk to you while your mouth is full of tea brack. It’ll be well worth the extremely reasonable price ($3 for two scones, $5 for four, $4 for a loaf of soda bread, and $5 for a loaf of tea brack).
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Two and a Half Irish-Men’s Soda Bread
Courtesy of Niall Duffy, who penned all of the below words!
This recipe is the original first used in the 1820s, when there was little access to yeast or eggs. The recipe depends on the reaction of the bread soda [that’s baking soda, to us dumb Americans] and the buttermilk to help the bread rise.
It does not rise very much, maybe doubles in size and that’s all. The secret though to good soda bread is to NOT agitate or mix too much, otherwise the little gas created by the reaction of the bread soda and buttermilk will just be lost before it even gets into the oven.
- 2 lbs (908g) whole wheat flour
- 3 to 3 ¼ cups (700 to 750ml) buttermilk
- 2 shakes salt
- 3 tsp Bicarbonate of soda (bread soda)
- Turn your oven onto 425 °F.
- In a bowl, mix together the flour, salt, and bread soda.
- Make a well in the center of the dry mix.
- Pour in about half of the buttermilk and fold in by hand or using a mixer with tongs.
- Add more until the mixture just loses its stickiness and is easily kneaded on the counter top.
- Form into a round ball by hand and flatten the top with your hand
- Cut a deep cross into the top of the bread (almost cutting it into quarters!) and put onto a lined oven baking tray with a little oil sprayed onto it. This is to help the bread cook all the way through, as it is quite dense.
- Place in the center of the oven for 15 minutes at 425 °F, then turn it down to 400 °F and cook for approx. 30 minutes more, depending on your oven.
- Check by using a skewer and seeing that it is completely baked all the way through.
- Congratulations!! You have just baked a Soda Bread the way it was done 200 years ago…except for the electricity, gas, and oven!!