Camp Food

My Mother’s Bread

by Heather Hamacek

My Mother’s Bread

Jocelyn Filley

Fall makes me think of camping. Curling up in a plaid blanket next to a bonfire, taking long hikes through arboreal tunnels, eating Irish soda bread. The simple, hearty bread is quick and easy to make and pack, it doesn’t crumble, and it stays fresh, ma king it the perfect camp bread.

My mother perfected her recipe for Irish soda bread before one such camping trip. In November of 1980, she was 26 years old and had three weeks of vacation from her first “real” job. She packed up her navy blue 1969 VW camper van with a sleeping bag, hiking boots, a bag of apples, a brick of cheddar cheese, and five freshly baked loaves of Irish soda bread. While hiking through national parks (Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Crater Lake, Arches, Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef) she subsisted on a quarter loaf of the filling bread each day with cheese and an apple. She loved it.

Eating nothing but soda bread, cheese, and apples was no hardship for my mom. She often gets stuck in what we call food ruts, eating the same thing over and over for days on end. I inherited this habit from her. In high school it was baked potatoes. Right now, it’s soda bread.

Early autumn on the Vineyard means cool mornings that turn to warm afternoons. One recent misty morning, I decided to warm up my cottage by baking a fresh batch of the bread. With only four ingredients, no rise time and 20 minutes for baking, I can make soda bread for breakfast and my little house will cool down before midday.

Early autumn on the Vineyard means cool mornings that turn to warm afternoons. One recent misty morning, I decided to warm up my cottage by baking a fresh batch of the bread. With only four ingredients, no rise time and 20 minutes for baking, I can make soda bread for breakfast and my little house will cool down before midday.

Instead of yeast the bread rises with the help of baking soda, hence the name. It’s a “quick bread,” like banana bread, only much heartier and less decadent, and I always have the ingredients on hand (flour, baking soda, salt), except the buttermilk, just a quick trip to the store away. You can add caraway seeds, currants, or raisins to the basic recipe, but according to The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, such additions turn the bread into a teacake. I like soda bread best unadorned, regardless.

I measured out the flour (one, two, three, four cups). Then the salt and baking soda, a teaspoon each. Mix. Then it was slowly adding the buttermilk. One and a half cups, approximately. Pour slowly and adjust as needed. The dough should be wet, but not too wet, as the handwritten recipe card reminded me.

Though I started out mixing with a fork, it wasn’t long before I plunged my hands into the dough instead. Once mixed, I dumped the dough onto my floured counter and split it into four sticky lumps. I formed them into 1.5 -inch thick circles and cut an X into each loaf. My Xes didn’t turn out very well, but I popped them into the oven preheated to 425˚F anyway. Mom bakes things hot. I sent her a text message.

“Making soda bread. Had a hard time doing the X on the top. Any recommendations?”

Sixteen minutes later: “Use a serrated knife!” Thanks a lot, Mom. I already knew that trick.

Despite the wonky X, the four small loaves were done in 20 minutes, lightly brown on top and smelling amazing. My big loaf was ready to go in, once the cookie sheet had cooled. I greased the pan with butter, (or use a spritz of cooking spray like Pam) and plopped my big loaf into the center. The X on the top went much more smoothly this time. Small victories.

While the big loaf baked, I broke a small loaf in half, too hungry to wait. Steam curled out of the soft center. On one half I slathered butter, on the other a wedge of sharp cheddar cheese. Delicious.

Irish soda bread does not have a complex flavor; after all, there are only four main ingredients. But for me, it tastes of hardiness and self-reliance shared from one broke 20-something to another, 36 years apart.