Yeast-raised breads have been around for thousands of years, ever since the bakers of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia realized that leavened breads were tastier and easier to eat than unleavened. Quick breads, such as Irish soda bread, date from the 19th century when baking soda became readily available. Bakeries often make soda bread for St. Patrick's Day customers, who can recognize it readily by the traditional cross-shaped slashes on the top.
About Soda Bread
Irish soda bread is one of many similar quick breads, made using either baking soda or baking powder. Soda-based breads tend to be older recipes, and rely on acidic ingredients such as buttermilk to react with the soda and give the bread its rise. Traditional Irish soda bread is very simple, containing just flour, soda, salt and buttermilk. It worked well with the low-gluten wheats that grew well in Ireland, while yeast breads performed better with relatively expensive imported wheat. That made soda bread the more economical alternative, an important consideration in low-income areas.
Soda bread is typically shaped into a flat, round loaf for baking. Like many European yeast breads, the top crust is usually slashed before the loaf goes into the oven. The soda-based dough will rise vigorously in the oven's heat, and slashing the top crust allows it to expand without creating large and unattractive cracks. The slashes can be made in any pattern, from rings to a cross-hatch design, but traditionally the loaf receives two simple slashes that form a cross.
Like the crosses on the hot-cross buns served at Easter, the cross slashed into the top of a loaf of soda bread has symbolic importance. It was said to ward off the devil, providing a measure of ritual protection for the household. Similar traditions are observed in many parts of the Western world, especially in Catholic or Orthodox regions. Greek holiday breads often have a cross slashed into the loaf or molded on top with strips of extra dough, while in the Canadian province of Newfoundland -- which has a strong Irish tradition -- yeast breads are baked with three buns in each pan, to symbolize the Trinity.
The most traditional recipes make a very plain soda bread, which usually accompanies the rest of a meal. Elaborate Americanized versions add spices and raisins or currants, and some also include eggs or butter for a softer and more scone-like texture. The loaf can be cut into wedge-shaped quarters for faster baking, which is also traditional in some parts of Ireland. For a more polished appearance, brush the top of the loaf with milk or a beaten egg before slashing it. The crust develops a rich golden color and the slashed areas remain pale, providing a visually striking contrast.