I love to bake. Right now, I’m baking Irish Soda Bread, and oh, my! I can hardly wait until it’s out of the oven!
Anticipation builds as I assemble the ingredients–caraway seeds, raisins, buttermilk, sugar, flour, etc. The stream of consciousness flows as I cut the butter into the flour and start thinking about my heritage. Like many Americans, my family tree is rooted in several countries. Mine is rooted in Lithuania, Ireland, and although it gets a little sketchy on my Dad’s side, most likely Wales and/or England. When I grew up, I picked up on some of the Lithuanian culture, and in grade school, when tasked to make a family coat of arms, I chose to focus on England. But, when it came to food, the Irish influence was the greatest.
When it comes to this time of year, nothing feels more like home and family than Irish Soda Bread. My Uncle Bob was a baker, amongst other things, and it’s his adaptation of our family’s Irish Soda Bread recipe that I make every year. I always trusted his judgment, especially because when I was a child, he would bring over, fresh from the ovens, trays of glorious filled donuts he’d made himself. Pretty much anything my Uncle said from there on was golden.
But, getting back to the Irish Soda Bread, he willfully admitted that contrary to the version of the recipe that was handed down through the generations, his had more sugar, more caraway seeds, and more raisins. I made him write out the recipe one day decades ago and have been making it his way ever since, but still consider it “our family’s” recipe. I wish I could say I’m sharing this recipe with you today, but I’d rather share the combination to the lock on my safe! (Though there’s nothing in the safe anyway, so take that with a grain of salt!) No, the recipe will remain safe with me. I’ve shared it with immediate family, and who knows, maybe they’ve shared it outside the family, but I know that at least with me, it will remain protected as if it were the Holy Grail.
Something about making Irish Soda Bread connects me to my ancestors and everyone in my current family. As I pour and stir, I think of all of them. And when I do, I know this is what is meant by “making something with love.” More accurately, it is made FROM love–from a long legacy of loved ones who have done so for many generations.
Time to pour in the buttermilk, “But be sure to get all the buttermilk off the walls of the cup!” That last tidbit is courtesy of my Mom who can’t stand wasting anything and actually LOVES drinking buttermilk straight-up (tough woman!), so she deems this part particularly important. For that reason, I stay mindful of it (at least when she’s in the same room!).
At some point you’ve just got to get your hands into it, and I’m happy to oblige. It’s perhaps what I love most about baking. All the hands-on that’s entailed. The Welsh women, the Irish women, and the Lithuanian women, too, all seem to have a lot of upper body strength. Grandma would wield a rolling pin around in the early years that would have you worried for your life! We’re all built like oxen, we are! STRONG. LIKE. BULL.
I love baking recipes that don’t require electric gadgets to get from start to finished product. I want to stir, beat, blend, and whisk it by hand. Kitchen Aid devices are lovely and even absolutely necessary for making certain things, I suppose, but I truly love the lull of a quiet kitchen, sans machines. I imagine how things were done several hundred years ago, the clothes that were worn, the struggles of the day, the energy that went into making the meals when there were probably a hundred other back-breaking chores to be done throughout the day. I like paying homage to that by keeping it simple.
In 2009, I took a trip to Wales to attend my friends’ wedding. Days before the wedding, I spent an afternoon at the bride-to-be’s parents’ house–a lovely, hillside farm house. We made Welsh cakes on the griddle-top of their old-fashioned stove. The experience was overwhelming for me; I felt so connected to the place. And later, a stroll down a long, dirt road into the woods with several, strong-spirited Welsh matriarchs transported me in time as if I were walking alongside my own spirited, female ancestors. It filled me with so much joy and contentment; I find it hard now to capture it in words.
Whether it is Irish, Welsh, English, or Lithuanian, I connect to all of these. And, very often, for me, it is the food that can get me there in an instant. Like last week, when I saw and smelled white veal sausage cooking at an outdoor country market. It sent me back some 30 years when I was standing next to my Lithuanian grandfather in the kitchen as he cooked white sausage in a pan. The spicy aroma rose from the skillet as the heat charred the casing. He transferred it to a plate and made an incision in the skin until it popped from the juices. After he sliced it in half long ways and smothered it in a hardy, ground mustard, I tasted for the first time what my Lithuanian ancestors might’ve eaten. It was one of his favorite things, and it’s one of mine too. I immediately see, smell, and feel him near when I come across something like that. And yet, I didn’t buy it like I wanted to. I thought, No. It’s sausage. That’s not exactly healthy eating. Plus, it was $8, and in my little world, that’s an extravagance.
But who am I kidding here? I would completely deny my identity if I did not embrace my love of food. At times like these, I love not just what it tastes like but what it signifies. I know that would probably put me on a special show of Dr. Phil–the episode where I struggle to break free from attaching emotional comfort to food–but I will risk it and admit that sometimes food does that for me.
Truth: the first time I discovered I enjoyed baking was when I realized I could make my own cookies from the ingredients in the cabinets without having to run out to the store. At some point I also realized how much I loved the whole process of making cookies, start to finish. I always made dozens upon dozens of cookies around Christmastime when I was a teenager and into my 20’s. I always made cakes from scratch. But then I stopped at some point because I also ate what I made and the scale showed it. I hardly ever bake anymore because of that. And yet, I miss it.
For now, maybe I’ll be satisfied with just a warm slice of Irish Soda Bread while thinking about how many of my ancestors have eaten something much like it in their lifetime and how many in my family will be eating it this week. I know they will. Every one of my siblings makes this bread this time of year. Maybe I’ll even head back to that farmer’s market and get some of that Lithuanian sausage, too!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone, whether you’re Irish or not, whether you like the Irish or not. It’s really just a day to celebrate good food and good memories, and to remember to always smile. Now, what’s so bad about that?!