Lightly crumbly, with the pleasant tang of good buttermilk, raisin-studded soda bread is an easygoing delight. In Irish homes, of course, it's a staple on the tea table, and everyone knows cooks who can make a good sweet loaf in minutes -- without measuring.
In fact, soda bread is more dessert than bread. It was once referred to as "cake of bread," writes the late English author Elizabeth David in her seminal work, "English Bread and Yeast Cookery." The "cake" part was used to distinguish the bread from a sandwich loaf.
Freshly baked, crusty-edged slices of soda bread are splendid with salted butter and preserves, or with cheese. Once you've decided to head to the kitchen to bake, it's just as easy to make two as it is to make one. The extra is a thoughtful, neighborly gift.
Nearly childlike in its simplicity, soda bread dough is moist, lightly spiced with freshly grated nutmeg, and sweetened. Both baking powder and baking soda go into this version, though the original breads were soda only. Enrich the dough with several tablespoons of butter and egg yolks.
In fact, the butter, yolks, sugar, and vanilla extract distinguish the bread, making it a reconfigured and enhanced version of the classic. More precisely, you've made what David calls a soda "cake," as the traditional model of soda bread is based on four ingredients: whole - wheat flour, buttermilk, baking soda (this reacts with thick, fresh buttermilk to make the bread rise), and salt. While the basic formula uses all-purpose flour, you can replace 1 cup of it with whole-wheat flour. The robust flour creates a noticeably denser, but no less appealing, bread.
The method for mixing the dough resembles biscuit or scone-making. First you take the cold butter and reduce it to pea-size dabs in the bowl of dry ingredients. After whisking the buttermilk, yolks, and vanilla together, pour the wet ingredients into the dry, scatter the mixture with golden raisins, and form a moist dough with a wooden spoon. Knead it gently by patting and turning it in the bowl, before easing in onto a floured counter and dividing it into two plump balls.
Once you settle the rounds on the baking sheet, then slash and sugar the tops, it is only a matter of waiting 40 minutes before the sweetly aromatic breads can be pulled from the oven.
Country-style loaves are hard to resist, but let them rest for half an hour before savoring something beautifully fresh, handmade, and familiar.