When Irish Soda Is Rising

Not a fan of packed pubs on St. Paddy's day? Pick up a loaf of locally baked Irish soda bread instead.

Hard work, but someone had to do it: our tasting table.

With the highs of St. Patrick’s Day come the lows: pinches, colored beer, the terrible flirts with “green underwear on, if you’d like to check,” and—Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph—those phony Irish accents. It’s enough to make you want to stay inside all day. So this year, we propose a new tradition: Local bakers are pulling flaky, filling Irish soda bread out of the oven right now, so why not split a loaf with friends and family over a hot cup of Bewley’s tea, some hearty shepherd’s pie, or a glass of Guinness come Friday, March 17?

But first, a little background, because it’s easier to find a four-leaf clover than to reach a consensus on what constitutes the perfect soda bread. Some swear by recipes that are plain and austere, reflecting the scarcity of supplies in Ireland when the bread became a dietary staple a few hundred years ago. Some recipes call for additions like molasses or raisins, making the bread much sweeter—but not as sweet as Ireland’s barmbrack fruit bread. (Even bakers who favor the simple recipes might incorporate caraway and currants into the dough for St. Patrick’s Day since it’s a special occasion.) There is a bottom line, however, to acceptable ingredient deviation: Irish soda breads use baking soda, never yeast. (Hence, of course, the name.) The recipe evolved in this way because the soft wheat in Ireland reacts badly when yeast is used as a leavening agent. As a bonus, soda bread is quick to make because bakers don’t wait for it to rise; it rises as it bakes. One legend dictates that a cross should be cut in the top of Irish soda bread to let the faeries escape; another holds that the cross wards off evil.

In order to help you find your perfect loaf, we gathered a tasting team to test four samples, and we’ve also included information on several local bakeries offering the bread so you can try others on your own. Whichever loaf you choose, pick up a brick of Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter and enjoy this traditional Irish staple in the comfort of your living room while wearing slippers—green or otherwise. Now that’s a St. Paddy’s celebration we’ll drink to.

Bakery: Dahlia Bakery, 2001 Fourth Ave., 206-441-4540, www.tomdouglas.com/dahlia-bakery., BELLTOWN Style: With her recipe, head baker Gwen Grande tries to hit midway between very rich and very dry, she says. The result: An uncrossed, golden sconelike bread, available with or without currants. “I wanted something that was nice and dense like a soda bread should be, but without the harsh aftertaste of soda,” Grande says. The bread is a favorite with Dahlia devotees, who annually flock to the bakery for it in March, she adds. What we thought about it: The flaky, cakey, buttery texture won the hearts of a few tasters, but, alas, the loaf we picked up was underdone. The resulting unpleasant spongy spots eclipsed the otherwise yummy bread. Cost: $6. Available: By special order through March.

Bakery: The Essential Baking Company, 2719 E. Madison St., 206-328-0078, MADISON VALLEY; 1604 N. 34th St., 206-545-0444, WALLINGFORD; and at high-end grocers like PCC and QFC; www.essentialbaking.com. Style: This was the smallest loaf we tried, but it’s very dense—weighing in at a pound. It’s studded with currants and marked with the traditional cross on top. Chief baking officer George De Pasquale uses organic unbleached wheat flour and a combination of buttermilk, butter, and organic sea salt for a unique but traditional flavor. “I gotta say, in all honesty, people are as passionate about the perfect Irish soda bread as they are about the perfect pizza,” De Pasquale said. “So we spent a whole lot of time developing this, testing it with friends and other Irish-soda-bread aficionados.” Out of all the conflicting opinions, De Pasquale went “away from the large scone, more towards a bready texture.” Why? “Just because I like it better,” he said. Fair enough. What we thought about it: This was the sweetest one we tried—very much a festive soda bread. One taster, a two-year resident of Ireland, declared this the most authentic recipe, comparable to what she bought on the streets of Galway and Dublin. Cost: $4.59. Available: Through March 17.

Bakery: Great Harvest Bread Company, 2218 N.W. Market St., 206-706-3434, BALLARD; 4709 California Ave. S.W., 206-935-6882, WEST SEATTLE; and 5408 Sand Point Way N.E., 206-524-4873, SAND POINT; www.greatharvestsea.com. Style: Great Harvest’s soda bread was the most complex of the bunch, offering a touch of savory with the sweet. “We added some things to spice up the traditional recipe,” like regular and golden raisins and caraway, Ballard-branch owner Bob Carlson says. Its brown hue comes from using 60 percent whole wheat flour. Although Carlson thinks raisins are “like little grape corpses,” he offers a ringing endorsement: “I can’t stand raisins, but I eat this bread every time we make it, it’s so good.” What we thought about it: We liked the texture of this one best. Each bite was sweet and chewy, but also savory and complex because of the caraway seeds. We thought it’d be great for sandwiches, and, as it turns out, Great Harvest thinks so, too. They offer their soda bread with turkey and other fixings per customers’ orders at their cafes. Cost: $5. Available: Through March.

Bakery: La Panzanella, 1314 E. Union St., 206-325-5217, www.lapanzanella.com, CAPITOL HILL. Style: Like a cornmeal biscuit, without the graininess. This was the largest of the bunch—a medium-pizza-sized, unmarked golden mound dusted with flour. “I looked at a bunch of different recipes for Irish soda bread, but most of them were too fancy,” head baker Becky Kardong says. “We wanted something more rustic, more in the nature of our Italian breads.” Toward that end, she left out any currants or fruit. What we thought about it: We debated. While it’d be great dunked into stew or shepherd’s pie, the bread was just too dry for some. One reviewer actually liked it best, providing the caveat, “Yeah, but I like dry things.” Another was more blunt, saying, “It’s an Irish Catholic bread; you just have to suffer through.” Cost: $7.50. Available: By special order year round. The bread is also available at the Celtic Swell, 2722 Alki Ave. S.W., throughout the year.

Irish soda bread is also available at the following bakeries through March 17, or as noted:

Columbia City Bakery, 4865 Rainier Ave. S., 206-722-9138, COLUMBIA CITY. Grand Central Baking Company, 1616 Eastlake Ave. E., 206-957-9505, EASTLAKE; and 214 First Ave. S., 206-622-3644, PIONEER SQUARE; www.grandcentralbakery.com. Macrina, 2408 First Ave., 206-448-4032, BELLTOWN; and 615 W. McGraw St., 206-283-5900, QUEEN ANNE; www.macrinabakery.com. Maplewild Bakery, 15217 21st Ave. S.W., 206-244-0737, BURIEN; orders for Irish soda bread taken year round. North Hill Bakery, 518 15th Ave. E., 206-325-9007, www.northhillbakery.com, CAPITOL HILL. Three Girls Bakery, 1514 Pike Place., Suite 1, 206-622-1045, PIKE PLACE MARKET. Two Tarts Bakery, 5629 Airport Way S., 206-767-8012, www.twotartesbakery.com, GEORGETOWN.