Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here's a recipe I used just yesterday to make some very nice soda bread, based on the "Irish Wholemeal Soda Bread" recipe in Elizabeth David's majestic tome, English Bread and Yeast Cookery (yes, she deigns to give some Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and even French recipes, too). The egg is definitely an American touch but it helps make the bread a little fluffier/cakier.
Ms. D. suggests putting the soda-bread dough into a cake pan, putting the pan onto a cookie sheet, then upending a deep (7") cake pan, baking dish, or heavy ovenproof pot over the dough. This will trap both heat and moisture around the dough as it bakes, helping it to rise. The pan or pot is removed after 30 minutes, so that the bread can brown for a final 10 min. or so.
Soda bread was originally baked over turf fires in the hearth, usually in heavy cast-iron pots. For baking, the rounded lids were flipped over, so they fit into the top of the pot like a shallow dish; coals were then piled into the lid and the pot suspended by a hook over the fire, so that the bread was baked by radiant heat from all sides. Lacking a turf fire, you can imitate this by putting a heavy cast-iron (or enameled cast iron, like Le Crueset) pot into the oven to preheat for 10-15 minutes. Once the dough is ready, drop it into the pot and pop on the lid. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and let it bake another 10 min or so to brown. It's the same mini-brick-oven concept as used by the No-Knead Bread folks.
But, if you don't want to bother with this, a cast-iron skillet makes a very good baking pan, giving a good crust and helping the bread bake & brown well.
Personally, I love the taste of caraway seeds in soda bread, but you can leave them out if they're not your thing. Oh, and make sure your baking soda is reasonably fresh and hasn't been sitting over the stove for the past 5 years. It's CHEAP, and since you're probably going out to the store to get the buttermilk and caraway seeds anyway, spring for the buck or so and get a new kitchen-only box.
St. Patrick's Day Soda Bread
1 1/2 cups whole wheat or white flour, or a combination (I love the flavor and nuttiness of all whole wheat, but adjust to your taste; a non-wheat mix of oat and barley flours would probably also work well)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
2 tbsp butter, softened
1/3 cup raisins or currants
1 to 2 tbsp caraway seeds (optional)
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup buttermilk
extra water and/or buttermilk, as needed
1. Preheat oven to 425F. Lightly grease a cast-iron skillet or 8" cake pan. Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Rub in butter until mixture looks grainy/pebbly. Mix in raisins and caraway seeds, if using.
2. In a small bowl or measuring cup, beat egg and buttermilk together. Drizzle into dry mixture, stirring gently, until mixture comes together into a moist dough. If patches remain dry, add a little water or more buttermilk.
3. Pat mixture into a plump round. Slash a cross on top with a sharp knife. Put bread into prepared pan. Bake approx. 40 minutes, until golden brown. Best served warm or toasted.