Saturday, March 12, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

I’ve just returned from a trip to Ireland—purely research, of course, because I’ll be writing a new series set in Co. Cork, which will debut in 2012.  It’s so new the series doesn’t even have a name, much less the first book.

But I know where it’s going to take place:  in the small village (population hovering just over 200, which was about where it was 150 years ago) of Leap.  My father’s father was born a few miles from there, in one of the tiny townlands inland from Leap. 

Leap takes its name from “Donovan’s Leap.”  The Donovans were the local rulers going back centuries, and as the story goes, one of them escaped a pack of pursuing Englishman by forcing his horse to leap over a large gully cut by a stream that flows into the harbor there (having taken a look at the gully, I have great respect for that horse--or for the power of Irish story-telling!).  The village is considered the gateway to The Wild West of Cork.

I’ve been to Ireland before, but not in the last decade.  This trip was not for sightseeing, but to pay attention to and absorb the sights, sounds, and even smells of the area.  To listen to the people talking.  To take lots of pictures.  To see how Ireland is handling its all-too-brief surge of prosperity, followed by a devastating crash that has left the county close to bankrupt.

Irish food has improved considerably in the past decade or two.  There are still examples of watery cabbage-and-ham stew, and even flavorless Irish lamb stew, but as in many places, attention has been paid to fresh local produce, and local fish and meat. The local supermarket stocks an admirable selection of fresh fish and meats, plus local organic fruits and vegetables.

But one thing that doesn't change is the traditional Irish soda bread, maybe because it’s so variable to begin with—everyone has her own recipe, and half the time nobody even measures the ingredients.  It comes in brown (great with local smoked salmon and Irish butter) and white.

Here’s a recipe that I’ve been making for years.

4 cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
6 Tblsp. granulated sugar
1 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
6 Tblsp. unsalted butter, cold, cut into chunks
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 egg yolks
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups dried currants

2 Tblsp. crystallized sugar for sprinkling on top

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Put the currants into a bowl and pour boiling water over them to soften for a few minutes.  Drain the currants.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, 6 Tblsp. sugar, and nutmeg.

Blend in the butter with pastry blender, a pair of knives, or your fingers, until pea-sized bits form.

In another bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg yolks and vanilla.  Pour liquids over the flour mixture and scatter raisins on top.  With a wooden spoon, stir the mixture to form a moist dough.  Flour your hands and knead the dough lightly in the bowl for 15 seconds.

On a lightly floured counter or board, divide the dough in half.  Form each half into a well-domed ball measuring 5-5 1/2 inches in diameter. 

Place each ball on the baking sheet, 5" apart.  With a small sharp knife, slash the top with a cross.  Sprinkle the top of each ball with crystallized sugar.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the loaves are set and golden. 

Transfer to wire racks and let cool for 30 minutes.  Serve with or without butter.


  1. Interesting news about the new series! Are you going to be writing anymore as Sarah Atwell?

  2. So excited about this new series, Sheila! I love all things Irish (it's the Riley in me), and can't wait to read your setting and get transported there. :)

    Great recipe for soda bread--I'm looking forward to trying it!

  3. Thanks for this, Sheila. Great recipe. I love Ireland and was so jealous about your trip (except for the broken you-know-what.

    Soda bread is great because you get delicious homemade bread fast! A keeper.

  4. Wonderful to hear about your new series, Sheila. Don't know if it's the beer, the whiskey, or the water, but Ireland has the very best genetics for storytellers--as we can see from your own work! The soda bread recipe looks delicious, too, a must-make for me, especially this week.

    Happy St. Patrick's Day (a wee bit early)!
    ~ Cleo Coffeehouse
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  5. Fresh bread + ease of recipe + great taste + lots of soft butter = Yummy!!!!!!

    Erin Go Bragh!!!