Recalling Grandma's way with good, hot raisin bread

I MADE SOME raisin bread recently. It wasn't very good, especially when compared to my grandmother's.

She used to bake raisin bread on weekday afternoons. That was back in the 1960s in the Midwestern town of St. Joseph, Mo., where it seemed to me that all grandparents came from Ireland and where it was common for three generations to live in the same house.


Her raisin bread was a treat. I remember arriving home after a hard day battling arithmetic and gerunds at school, and being lifted up by the sweet smell of baking bread.

Grandma would be sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for one loaf of bread to cool after it had come out of the oven, while kneading the dough that would soon form the next loaf. Like moths to the flame, my brothers and I would be drawn to the hot bread. To keep us at bay, Grandma would swing a lump of raw dough in our direction, dotting our noses with flour. After fending off many of our assaults, Grandma would determine that a loaf would be cool enough to slice. Our faces might have been covered with flour, but our bellies were full of homemade raisin bread.


In reality, that raisin bread scene probably wasn't quite that idyllic. There was probably some punching, some threats and some expressions of exasperation in the picture. But around St. Patrick's Day, my memory has a way of filtering out the lows and recalling the highs of growing up somewhat Irish.

I never got the recipe for my grandmother's raisin bread. I am pretty sure it was yeast bread. I recall that before the dough went in the oven, it went into seclusion, resting in a big brown bowl covered with a clean kitchen towel. Kids were under strict orders not to touch the bowl, not to open a door and create a draft, and not to lift the towel. All these precautions are necessary when we are waiting for yeast dough to rise.

I also recall that when the dough hit you in the nose, it was wet. That, too, is a characteristic of yeast dough.

The other night as I stumbled around in the kitchen trying to cook up something Irish, I ended up making raisin bread. But instead of yeast to leaven the dough, the recipe I used called for baking soda. This was soda bread, bread that relies on the reaction of bicarbonate of soda and "sour milk" to give the dough some lift.

Soda bread has been a fixture in Ireland since the late 19th century, a fact that bread historians trace to two causes. First, unlike the big cities of Europe where cooking fuel was scarce and where yeast breads emerged from bakery ovens, in Ireland wood fuel was readily, if illegally, available. So in Ireland it was common to bake bread at home, in the hearth. Secondly, the bastible, a three-legged pot, was hanging in almost every hearth in Ireland and was ideally suited to make great soda bread.

The recipe suggested using "sour milk" when making soda bread. Sour milk, I learned, is whole milk that has had a couple of teaspoons of buttermilk stirred into it, then has been placed in a scalded pot, wrapped in a towel and left in a "peaceable corner" at about 75 degrees for 24 hours. There are few corners in our house that are 75 degrees and none that are peaceable. I substituted regular buttermilk for sour milk.

Coming from a yeast-bread background, I found making soda bread a challenge. I put 3 1/2 cups of sifted flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of baking soda in a bowl, then stirred in a cup of buttermilk.

The instructions told me that instead of trying to create the smooth, elastic ball of dough common with yeast breads, I wanted dough that was "raggy and very soft." And I was supposed to work the dough very quickly, no more than 30 seconds, until the dough is one "mostly cohesive lump."


I ended up with two lumps, one with raisins, one without. I formed them into 6-inch ovals, sliced them across the top ("to let the devil out") then baked them for 10 minutes at 450 degrees, then 35 more minutes at 400 degrees.

The two loaves of soda bread weren't bad. They were a little dense, a bit crusty. I served the plain bread with supper, and the next morning, I toasted slices of the raisin bread and had them for breakfast. Things are supposed to get better from generation to generation. Most have, but when it comes to baking raisin bread, I still have a way to go to catch Grandma.