This article was published in the May 2014 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
Early this spring, I was invited to judge a soda bread contest in Oak Park, Ill. The contest, a long-running tradition started by Jim and Anne August at their Irish Shop in 2008, brings in anywhere from 10 to 40 entries each year.
There were a record 34 breads to taste last year. With so many ready-made breads available, simply entering the contest is a testament to the growing popularity of home baking.
The day I was to judge the 2014 contest, I ate a light breakfast and skipped lunch altogether, figuring I would have to take at least 34 bites. Luckily for me, and for the competitors too, the 2014 entry pool was smaller, only 10 breads total, with three wheaten (similar to American whole wheat) and seven white.
Derek O’Brien, master baker, owner of the Baking Academy of Ireland and expert soda bread maker, suggests that all the soda bread entries “would need to be a of a particular weight, be even in shape, have been cut with a cross, but everything would come down to taste.”
Should you be thinking about submitting a soda bread entry to next year’s contest, take a few notes from O’Brien, especially if you can’t make it to one of his baking courses in Dublin. (Although a few Americans have — I’m adding one of his courses to my personal bucket list.)
But back to the task at hand: judging.
A few people lingered in the shop, including an Oak Park police officer, waiting for the tasting to begin. Jim August took out the judging clipboards, with pen and paper attached to each one. Soon he was expertly cutting into the loaves, one by one.
“This is the first entry,” he said as he passed a piece to each judge.
I took the first soda bread in my hand, almost as if I was taking communion. I examined the texture, inhaled the aroma, felt for density and then eventually took a taste, chewing slowly.
I soon realized that the judging process was going to be harder than I had anticipated, because each bread has its own character. But we were judging for the best and most authentic look and taste, so I forged ahead, through more and more slices of soda bread.
Eventually it became clear that we would have a winner. One of the entries, submitted by Amy Hasegawa, a long-time contestant and previous winner, stood out for its traditional round form with a cross cut through the middle, a rich and slightly sweet taste and just the right amount of moisture to make the crumbs soft.
I had thought I knew soda bread. But when I bit into Amy Hasegawa’s slice, I was astonished that a soda bread could taste so hearty and soft. O’Brien affirmed that soda bread varies wildly from baker to baker.
“Soda bread recipes vary greatly,” he says, “because of the ingredients and for the way the flour, salt, buttermilk and sodium bicarbonate are mixed together.”
“The first thing we do in our courses is ask students to throw out their own recipe, probably from granny, because that recipe doesn’t work anymore. The buttermilk we have nowadays isn’t acidic enough, and continentals don’t like the soda flavor,” he says. “In fact I don’t like it myself. We use baking powder and natural yogurt in our baking academy recipes.”
O’Brien adds that there is a general misconception that the Irish have been making and eating soda bread for a very long time. “In fact,” he points out, “it was first made in Ireland about the year 1850 – barely 160 years ago.”
O’Brien, who opened the school in the early 2010, sees students of all ages come through the doors looking to improve their skills. During his long tenure at the Irish Baking School at the Dublin Institute of Technology, he was inspired to start his own academy after meeting mature students looking for skill-building opportunities.
“It’s always a pleasure when you’re standing in front of students and when they have no idea that there is so much science going on in bread. They aren’t actually making cake, they are dabbling in emulsion technology,” he said.
O’Brien enjoys teaching, but is most inspired by student engagement. “If people are asking you questions,” he says, “then you are in business!”
O’Brien is concerned about the growing scarcity of true artisan or craft bakeries in Ireland. He strongly believes in baking apprenticeships, but in the mid-90s the Irish baking industry no longer saw the benefit and to cut costs, eliminated that requirement of its employees. Around 80 percent of breads in Ireland are manufactured in factories or “fakeries,” according to O’Brien.
Needless to say, he holds his academy to high standards. “I have people who are employed as qualified bakers. Some are working in bakeries during the day and then come in to work for me later. I also only employ graduates of mine,” he said.
Should you be a home baker in America and non-qualified professionally, O’Brien has recommendations for his “one-page operation,” a.k.a. a soda bread recipe that you will find at the end of this column.
“If you come into us, we guarantee that our recipes will work,” he said and one golden rule stands above all: “Bakers should weigh everything including the egg,” he says. “You can’t expect consistency otherwise.”
In America he recommends using whole meal flour, because, “American wheats are quite strong.” You can also make up your own flour by adding bran to pastry flour.
If you’re a more adventurous baker, you can try changing up the traditional recipe, as O’Brien does. “There’s a tendency to keep things brown or white in Ireland,” he said. So he creates savory soda breads, like his Mediterranean bread with olives and pesto.
With all this new knowledge and a guaranteed recipe from O’Brien, maybe I’ll enter next year’s soda bread contest. I’ve got practicing to do. I hope my husband Michael is hungry.