One of my favorite restaurants as a kid, heck it’s one of my favorite restaurants now, is the Grasshopper in Mountain View, New Jersey. It was always a treat to go there growing up, and one of the places we always request to visit when we are back in town visiting my Dad. It’s one of the few places that the entire family loves. In fact, we celebrated my brother’s 21st birthday there, after Midnight Mass on Christmas. You’d think we actually were a traditional Irish-Catholic family
There are so many things to love about the Grasshopper – from it’s old wooden tables, to it’s beautifully carved bar to the fact that there few things on the menu that we don’t like. And although there is always a long list of special, I don’t think the actual menu has changed in all the years we’ve been going there. Our favorites include the chicken cordon blue and mashed potatoes, steak sandwich, fried fish, sautéed shrimp and chicken francais. And of course, as a family owned Irish pub, Guinness, Harp and soda bread were always on the menu.
While I was happy to partake in the Irish brews as soon as I was old enough, I didn’t touch the soda bread for many, many years. Sadly, way too many years. The soda bread recipe was a traditional Irish brown bread version, that for some reason just did not appeal to me.
Finally, however, on an evening (not that long ago – within the last twelve years I’d say), when I was particularly hungry and the salad just wasn’t cutting it, I reluctantly tore off a piece of still-warm soda bread, slathered it with butter and took a bite.
Imagine, if you will, the sound of angels singing and harps strumming. Yes, it was that good. I couldn’t believe how delicious that brown bread was. And I couldn’t believe I had been missing out on it for all those years.
After returning home I dreamed about that soda bread for weeks. I even thought of an inventing a reason to make a return trip to N.J. just so I could taste it again. But then I decided it would be easier if I just figured out a way to make it at home.
Having never made soda bread before, I started the way I did with any new recipe – by asking my primary cooking resource, my mom, if she had ever made soda bread. Although she hadn’t, she quickly got back to me with a recipe from a woman she worked with. I am honestly not sure why I didn’t just Google it myself – but when my Mom was here she was infinitely more trustworthy than Google.
Unfortunately, the recipe she sent didn’t really resemble the bread we enjoyed at the Grasshopper. It was made with white flour – so the bread wasn’t brown. It included ½ cup sugar, which, while not exactly making the bread a traditional “sweet bread” definitely gave it a much sweeter taste than the bread I remembered. The recipe also called for an egg, butter, baking powder and raisins.
Now, I’m going to be honest with you – I like raisins plain, I really do. Or covered in dark chocolate – yum! (But then again, there are few things that aren’t good when covered in dark chocolate). And, now, I even like them in oatmeal raisin cookies. But I really don’t want raisins in my muffins, buns or breads. And the Grasshopper soda bread most definitely did NOT have raisins in it. So I decided to omit them.
Interestingly, although raisins are regulary used in many soda breads prepared today, they were not included in traditional Irish loaves. In fact, traditional Irish soda bread is a very simple affair made up of four cheap ingredients that the Irish had easy access to: whole wheat flout, baking soda, salt and buttermilk.
I began by changing up the flour from white flour (all-purpose) to whole wheat and then trying different ratios of white, whole wheat, white whole wheat and even whole wheat pastry flour. I also increased the measurements of all the ingredients to come up with a nicely-sized round loaf of bread. I also eliminate the sugar, eggs, baking powder and raisins altogether.
Finally, after many, many tries I wound up with the current recipe – which is now our favorite! And the closest I could come to reproducing the Grasshopper’s soda bread. Although, I know it includes a few “non-traditional” ingredients, it meets my definition of traditional Irish soda bread.
In a large bowl, I whisk together 3 cups of whole wheat flour and 1 cup of whole wheat pastry flour. This ensures that the bread is brown (a requirement for me) and dense without being too heavy. And at the same time, ensures that this remains a whole grain bread. Then I whisk in the salt and baking powder. In a large measuring cup I combine the buttermilk with 4 tablespoons of melted and cooled butter. Then I add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and, using a wooden spoon, stir just until the dough comes together.
Once the dough is in a lumpy clump (how is that for a technical baking term?), I use my hands to make sure the wet and dry ingredients are fully combined and then I work the dough into a large ball. Do not overwork the dough – it will still be somewhat sticky – or you will have tough bread.
Finally, I shape the dough into an 8 inch mound on the parchment lined baking sheet. Then, I cut a cross into the top of the dough – just to keep that traditional look going – and bake it in a 375 degree oven until the crust is a golden brown – about 35-40 minutes.
Now is the hardest part, when the bread is removed from the oven you really do need to let it cool for about ten to fifteen minutes before slicing. Serve warm with a LOT of Kerrygold butter. If you are going to eat the bread on a future day, I suggest reheating it, or toasting it – this bread makes delicious toast.
P.S. I have since learned that in addition to serving traditional Irish Soda Bread, the Grasshopper now also serves hot cross buns and bread with raisins.