Irish Soda Bread

The idea of making my own bread fascinates me. There’s nothing like the smell of bread fresh from the oven, and there’s nothing like the taste of that same bread sliced while still warm and then smothered in butter. I haven’t tried many bread recipes, and none that involve a packet of yeast (there’s an art to yeast bread, it seems). I’ve learned from the ones that I have tried and will continue to make them.

Irish Soda Bread

When people talk about Irish country bread, they mean bread made without yeast, leavened by bread (baking) soda or baking powder. The Irish love this traditional bread and its solid nourishment gives them more pleasure than almost any Irish food. It also gives them a feeling of continuity with the past; the Irish have never stopped making soda bread at home.
It is doubtful if anything was weighed much in the old days, people just didn’t have time. They threw handfuls of flour and oatmeal of different sorts into a bowl and mixed them with buttermilk. When the texture felt right, the dough was crossed deeply and bundled into a hot oven or cooking pot. Forty minutes later, it had become a loaf which was robust and individual.

Making Soda Bread

No bread pan is needed for country bread. It bakes far better when placed straight onto a floured baking sheet in the oven. You will need a wire rack and a clean tea towel (dish cloth) to wrap the loaf in after it is baked.


  • 1 cup white (all-purpose) flour
  • 3 cups brown (whole-wheat) flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp bread (baking) soda
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk (approx.)

This is the classic Irish recipe for brown soda bread. You can make white soda bread by using 4 cups of white flour. Some people put herbs into their bread, with good results. After you’ve tried it a time or two, feel free to experiment and see what you can come up with.

Sieve/sift the flour, salt and baking soda into a bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour in most of the buttermilk to make a loose dough, adding more if necessary. Turn the dough on to a floured board and knead it lightly. Form a round loaf. Turn the smooth side up. Flatten it carefully and cut a deep cross in the top of the loaf.
Place on a baking sheet and bake at 400 F for about 40 minutes. The loaf should sound hollow if you tap the base (you may need to turn it over for 5 minutes or so to achieve this.) Wrap the loaf in a clean dish towel and put it on a rack to cool.

Some Advice

I’ve made this hearty loaf a couple of times now and plan on doing so well into the future. While I greatly enjoyed my first loaf, be careful not to add too much buttermilk, as you can end up with a sticky mess of dough to contend with. Likewise, it does make a difference if you flip the loaf over for the last 5 or so minutes to let the bottom fully bake, you might have some doughy spots in the bottom if you don’t. If you don’t sift the flour you can end up with a brick-like loaf; if you don’t have a sifter, use a spoon to scoop out the flour so that it doesn’t get compressed in the measuring cup.


A few slices of this bread make for a quite filling sandwich, or a single buttered slice for a snack. A thick slice goes wonderfully with a soup or stew. I’m comfortable enough with the recipe to start experimenting now. I will be trying various herbs, some sugar, perhaps even some molasses. Who knows what I’ll end up with!
Now it’s your turn! Spend a few minutes mixing, set the timer for the oven and enjoy your freshly-baked homemade bread!

Indoor Picnic

Is the weather not quite right to head outside for a picnic? Have one indoors! Indoor picnics have a number of advantages:

  • It doesn’t matter what the weather is
  • It doesn’t matter what time of day it is
  • You already have everything you need
  • You have a wider range of cooking options

Setting up

Clear an opening on the floor (a carpet or rug provides some padding) and spread out a blanket or sheet. Put some placemats down, and “set the table” with dishes, silverware and glasses. (I generally opt to go with the nice dishes and long-stemmed glasses). Turn down the lights and set up some candles.


Since your kitchen is readily accessible, you can make anything you want. Pick your favorite meal and get to cooking! I would suggest putting some focus on presentation. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but since you’re using candles for lighting, you can easily create a dramatic effect.

Serve and Enjoy!

Serve your meal, sit (or lie) down and enjoy! No worries with bugs, gusts of wind or sudden bad weather. Ahh… it doesn’t get much better than this!

What are you waiting for? There’s no excuse needed for an indoor picnic. Celebrate Wednesday, the fact that you’re alive and well, or just some good food. Enjoy!

It’s Picnic Time!


The weather’s turning warm, the flowers are blooming, and everything is beginning to turn green. It’s picnic time! My wife and I love going on picnics. We are always on the lookout for new places to stop. You can too!

What you need

Picnics can be as plain or as fancy as the situation calls for. Sometimes we just carry our meal in a lunchbox and use a picnic table in the park. Other times we load up the picnic basket and find a secluded beach or grassy field to spread our blanket out on.

I looked at a number of local stores before finding a picnic basket that I was happy with. This meant a few weekends of exploring shops, looking for just the right one. If I had started out by asking family members, I could have saved a bit of time, as it turns out that there were two sitting unused in attics. (hint, hint) You can pick up a number of different varieties online, such as this one, this one or this one. Most of these come with a set of dishes. If not, you can get a set from the local “everything for $1” store (insert the name of yours). For only a few dollars I had a set of plates, bowls, silverware, long-stemmed glasses , napkins, placemats and candles. Due to the low cost I can easily replace any that happen to break. I picked up a set of sheets at a yardsale for about $2, and have been using them as a blanket. Cheap, easily cleaned, and can be doubled up if desired. My whole picnic set cost around $30-40.

Packing tips

It took me a couple of tries to figure out how best to pack everything inside my basket. I don’t take everything if I don’t expect to need it (the bowls often stay home). Generally, I start with the plates on bottom, layering a napkin in between for padding. The silverware is wrapped inside the other napkin and tucked inside a glass. The glasses are rolled inside the placemats for protection and laid on top of the plates. The candles (tea candles in small glasses) are tucked into the corners of the basket. All of this takes up about 1/4 of the basket. I generally lay the blanket/sheet on top of the dishes and begin packing the food. The heavier/sturdier (tupperware/thermos/bottle) items go on the bottom, with the other items stacked on top.

What to eat

I don’t know that there is such a thing as a “picnic meal”. I’ve had everything from sandwiches to grilled chicken. It all depends on your location, how much time you have, and most importantly, your tastes. If the picnic is only part of a larger day, you will want something that travels well, such as sandwiches or a salad. Is the picnic the main focus? Try something a bit fancier; grilled chicken, rice and veggies.

Whatever you choose, it doesn’t have to be fancy. You might find that food you have everyday tastes better, simply by having it in a new setting. This means that a sandwich and chips might be exactly what you want. Try some bread and cheese, a selection of fresh fruit and a nice drink to compliment them. Maybe you won’t want more than a salad. See what sounds good and go with that.

Where to cook

Where are you going to prepare the food? If I’m having a picnic later in the day (say lunch during a day trip) I often choose to go with sandwiches and just pack the ingredients. I can actually put the sandwich together at the location so that it is freshly-made. When the picnic is the main focus, I sometimes prepare the food at home just before leaving. This generally means that I have to pack it so that it stays warm. Soup and liquids will go in a thermos, chicken and other solids are often wrapped in aluminum and then in a towel for insulation. Sometimes I take one of my camping stoves and simply prepare the meal at the spot.

Where to go

Now that you’ve got your equipment and decided what you’re eating, it’s time to figure out where to go. There are countless options available here. You can go to the local park and either use one of the picnic tables or find a grassy area where you won’t be interrupted. Perhaps you want to find a spot overlooking a ball game. Find a stream or beach and eat beside the water. Go hiking to a favorite overlook. Boat out to an island and eat there. My wife and I have tried all of these options, and are continually on the lookout for new ones.

Make it special

It’s easy to add those few small touches to make a picnic extra special. Have some fresh fruit for dessert. Bring some long-stemmed candles (be sure to catch the wax with something, or it can get stuck to your blanket). I always try to surprise my wife during our picnics, so I do all the packing; I try to slip in a bottle of sparkling juice, some favored dessert, or something else to make it special for her.

Picnicing alone

For those times when you don’t have someone with you, picnicing can still be greatly enjoyable. A past job of mine included traveling about the area, and I enjoyed the opportunity to eat my lunch in many wonderful locations. I focused on the good food that I had, and on the beautiful settings I was in. A picnic is as special as you make it.

It’s picnic time!

Paper bag or a hand-woven teak basket makes no difference. Doesn’t matter if it’s the same sandwich you have every day or chicken breast in a special sauce. Bench in a park or an island all to yourself, it’s all the same. Savor your food, drink in your surroundings and focus on the good things in life. What is important is that you get out there and go picnicing!

Banana Leaf Picnic Basket

Pick Up an Old Skill

Following up on Wednesday’s post about learning a new skill, maybe you are unable to pursue new interests at the moment. Perhaps the necessary equipment costs more than you can currently afford, you really don’t have time for a new hobby, or some other reason (these become more than excuses when they are true.) If that is the case, and you still want more excitement in your daily life, what about pursuing a previous interest? Perhaps you used to paint, play a sport or instrument, or maybe you collected baseball cards. It could be that you have a punching bag hanging in the garage or fishing tackle in the attic. Whatever it was, you likely still have the necessary equipment, you just have to invest some time and energy into it.

Personally, I have always had an interest in juggling. I bought a copy of The Klutz Book of Juggling some years ago and learned the basic three-ball cascade. After a few weeks of messing around with it (I worked at a grocery store as a stock-boy and would juggle the bruised fruits in the back of the store) I quit progressing and gradually lost interest.

During my tour of the school here in Ireland, I discovered that there was a juggling club. My interest was piqued. I went to the first meeting that I could and there I learned the basics of juggling clubs. I also had some good practice with juggling balls. I did some research online and discovered many new tricks that I could learn.

Want another example? I’ve been drawing or painting in some form since I can remember, at least up until recent years. I allowed myself to get busy with other things and quit making the time. However, I have a pretty good supply of materials. Recently I stumbled across The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain at the library and decided that I should work through it. Not only would I get back into practice, but I could learn some new skills while I was at it. My re-entry to this beloved hobby cost nothing more than the time. I checked out the book, grabbed a drawing pad that was lying around, and the pencil that was beside it.

Your hobby doesn’t have to be new and “in fashion”. As long as it is something that interests you, that is all that matters. So get out there and pursue your interests!

Learn a New Skill

[singlepic=56,320,240,,right]Is there something that you have been interested in taking up? Why are you putting it it off? You can see what I think about excuses here. There are many worthwhile hobbies that one can do without spending a lot of money.

I have the desire to play an instrument. I need something small and lightweight, easily portable. (One problem that I had with the guitar was I couldn’t take it on trips with me, so I’d lose my momentum and quit practicing.) As fun as a harmonica might be, I wanted something different. While browsing an Irish gift shop back home, I stumbled across a Tin Whistle. This was exactly what I was looking for! It is easily portable while also being something that you don’t see everyday. Once I learn to play it, I can play most any whistle, so I can improvise when need be.

After a few months of looking for a “better price” and “just the right whistle” (see making excuses above) I finally decided to just buy the next one that I saw. (I ended up with a cheaper price than the one at home and it was within a couple Euros of the cheapest price I have seen.)

I haven’t gotten very far yet, I’m not great at making myself sit down and practice. However, I have learned a couple of songs. The first, Mary Had a Little Lamb, didn’t take me too long, while the second Weile Waile (an old Irish tune) took me a bit longer. (I can’t get a good video on the camera I’ve got. I’ll keep messing with it and see if I can figure it out, though.)

So what hobby captures your interest? Why are you making excuses? Go out there and pursue your interests!

What Kind of Explorer are You?

For two weeks we had been doing it all wrong. Finally, it occurred to us: we are not urban tourists.

[singlepic id=55 w=320 h=240 float=center]

What kind of explorer are you? Are you excited by gardens or architecture; do you prefer the historic or the cutting edge parts of town? You already know what interests you, though you might have to decide to focus on those things. Try as you might, until you do, your adventures will not be as fulfilling as they could be.

We spent the first night of a trip following friends around looking for a pub to visit; we have no interest in pubs, though and did not enjoy ourselves – we do not imbibe and prefer more subdued music. Instead, we are coffee beans. We eagerly search out new shops, where we compare our favorite drinks and appreciate the decor over conversation. While there we satisfy our sweet tooth by sampling the offered desserts. This type of exploration is much more our style, motivating us and providing energy. As much as we enjoy our friends’ company, my wife and I much prefer striking out on our own.

What kind of explorer you are influences where you go. Do you want to see the natural areas or tour the city? Since we are visiting a new (to us) country we have been touring the cities and towns, “seeing the sights.” Other than a few monuments and historic buildings, all cities are the same to us. We don’t care about shopping or seeing what the stores have to offer. Once we’ve seen those highlights, we’re left with a city that we have no interest in. At an ancient castle, though, we won’t even have made it inside before most visitors are leaving. We will spend all day exploring the garden and grounds, seeing where all the trails go and watching the wildlife. If that is the only place that we visit, we will be more than thrilled.

This is something that my wife and I consider every year. At least once a year my wife and I go white water rafting. We have two different destinations available within a 5 hour drive. We can travel down to Tennessee, spend the whole weekend and raft on a level 3/4 river for about $150 each (gas, food, camping, rafting, everything), or we can head over to West Virginia for a 4/5 river that costs about $150 for the day trip (just rafting). It’s a no-brainer for us. We are rather frugal and like our money to go further. We prefer to spend the entire weekend; we get to go hiking in the mountains, we carry our climbing gear so we can do some climbing, there is a cave nearby that we can explore, and we get to go rafting! The river is not quite as wild, but it is still a great experience, and the other activities available more than make up for any difference in the rivers.

Don’t think that this is just something that you need to consider when visiting somewhere new; it applies to places near to home as well. When you visit the nearby lake, do you want to go fishing, swimming or rock skipping? All three require different circumstances, found at different spots along the shore. When visiting the park, are you going there for a quiet stroll in the shade, a brisk jog for exercise, or somewhere private for a picnic? These different goals might be best suited at completely different parks, separate locations within the park, or during varying times of day.

Now that we have consciously thought about our preferences, our trips have been much better suited for us. We might never do some of the things that our fellow students are doing, but we will visit other places they will never see. These differences in our respective trips will provide the extra personal meaning that we are searching for.

Seek Out a New Version of Your Everyday Products

I hate chores and don’t like doing them. Unfortunately, my life tends to include some chores that I have to take care of. Shopping, for example. In order to work around the idea that it is a chore, I make it into an adventure. Looking at it as an expedition, I enjoy shopping and look forward to trips to the store.

One of the things that I do is to explore the different versions of the stuff that I have to buy. When you go shopping, do you always buy X brand of yogurt, Y brand of toilet paper and Z brand of clothes? Unless I have tried most of the options out there and settled on one that I prefer, I will continue to try new versions. This does make the trip a bit longer, but it helps keep it from seeming like just another chore.

Here’s a recent example: Before leaving for Ireland, I was perusing the food co-cop’s hygeine section and came across J.R. Liggett’s Old-Fashioned Bar Shampoo. It particularly caught my interest at that time because a shampoo bar would take up much less room in my luggage than a bottle and also cause no trouble when passing through security checkpoints. (Even better, if I liked it, it would not only work for this trip but also for camping.) I purchased a bar, put it in my luggage, and away I went!

I’ve never used a bar shampoo but figured it couldn’t hurt to try. The label states “This shampoo will not strip the natural oils from your hair so most people do not need a conditioner.” Since I was trying to save room while packing, not having to carrry conditioner sounded good to me! Worst-case scenario, I would not like the shampoo and would have to buy a bottle to replace the bar.

By now, a couple of months have passed since I purchased my shampoo bar, and I doubt that I will be returning to a liquid shampoo. My hair feels healthier than before, and I haven’t used any conditioner. My wife also tried the shampoo bar and liked it, except for the fact that I purchased an unscented bar. Once I told her that it also comes in a variety of smells, she was interested in gettting some for herself.

Without taking the time to explore a new section at the store (which was only a recent find itself), my hair would not be healthier, my haircare routine would involve an extra step and I would have bought yet another bottle of the same shampoo that I had been using for years. Who knows what I will find next time…

Now, instead of just blindly following your list, take the extra bit of time to seek out the adventures that shopping list of yours points to. Explore the offerings of the deodorant department, peruse the sock selections and try a new fresh fruit flavor! Your new favorite might be waiting just behind the next purchase!

St. Paddy’s Day


“Every country has a St. Paddy’s Day, but here in Ireland we have St. Paddy’s Week!”

No school this week, we’re off for a “study break”. Which only makes sense, due to the fact that a week of celebrations would probably inhibit lecture attendance anyway. 😉

Other than the need for wearing green so that I didn’t get pinched at school, I never knew much about the holiday. Since I’m living in Ireland during the holiday this year, it seemed like a perfect time to find out.

Who was St. Patrick?

The patron saint of Ireland was born in the 5th century, a son of wealthy British. Some sources reference that his given name was Maewyn Succat (but I’ll stick with Patrick). Patrick was captured by Irish raiders at the age of 16. He was taken to Ireland where he remained in captivity for six years. During this time, he worked as a shepherd, outdoors and away from people. Lonely and afraid, he turned to his religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian. (It is also believed that Patrick first began to dream of converting the Irish people to Christianity during his captivity.)

According to Patrick’s writings, he escaped after God spoke to him in a dream, telling him it was time to leave Ireland. After returning to Britain, he writes about a second dream where an angel told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Patrick became an ordained priest (after 15 years of study) and was sent to Ireland with a dual mission; to minister to the Christians who were already living in Ireland and to begin to convert the Irish. This dual mission contradicts the widely-held belief that Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland.


[singlepic=30,320,240,,left]Most of the Irish practiced a nature-based pagan religion and Patrick, familiar with the Irish language and culture, chose to incorporate familiar symbols into his teachings. He superimposed the sun (a powerful Irish symbol) over the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross in order to make it more familiar to the Irish.



A commonly held myth is that Patrick banished all of the snakes from Ireland. In truth, there never were any snakes on the island. The “banishing of the snakes” is a metaphor for the triumph of Christianity and the eradication of pagan worship from Ireland. The island was completely Christianized within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival.


[singlepic=34,320,240,,right]What do “seamroy” (as the Celts called them) have to do with St. Patrick? Nothing so far as I can tell. The Celts saw them as a sacred plant, symbolizing the rebirth of spring. As the English began to seize Irish land and outlaw against the use of Irish language and the practice of Catholicism in the seventeenth century, many Irish began to wear the shamrock as a symbol of pride in their heritage.

Corned Beef & Cabbage

[singlepic=31,320,240,,left]Where does this tradition come from? The United States, of all places! Cabbage has long been a traditional Irish food, with bacon (pork) being the common meat. Upon arrival in America, Irish immigrants found salted beef (often corn-sized grains of salt were rubbed into the meat to cure it, hence the name) to be a cheaper and more readily avialable option than the pork they were familiar with. While both cabbage and salted meat have historic relations with Ireland, St. Patrick’s day celebrations did not include any traditional foods until the early 1900’s. It was around this time that Irish Americans began to include corned beef and cabbage as a tradition.

Little Men

[singlepic=32,320,240,,left]Leprechauns also have nothing to do with St. Patrick. Celts believed in fairies, tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. They were called “lobaircin,” meaning “small-bodied fellow.” In Celtic folktales, leprechauns were cranky souls, responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies. Though only minor figures in Celtic folklore, leprechauns were known for their trickery, which they often used to protect their much-fabled treasure. It wasn’t until Disney’s film in 1959 called Darby O’Gill & the Little People that Americans were introduced to a very different sort of leprechaun. This cheerful, friendly leprechaun is a purely American invention, but has quickly evolved into an easily recognizable symbol of both St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland in general.

The Holiday

March 17th is believed to be the date of Patrick’s death and became his feast day. So far as I have found, Patrick was never officially canonised (sainted) by a Pope, but was declaired a Saint in Heaven (he is in the List of Saints) by a number of churches. He is still widely venerated in Ireland and elsewhere today.


You might be asking “How should I celebrate?” It’s taken many years for most of our St. Patrick’s Day traditions to be established. Now that you know more of their origins, you can better appreciate them, and partake in them! Make a traditional bacon and cabbage meal, watch the parade (complete with leprechauns and shamrocks) and enjoy a pint of your favorite beverage.

Traditional Irish Recipe – Bacon and Cabbage


You might be thinking, “Shouldn’t this be Corned Beef?” Indeed, it should not. Bacon (pork) was the most readily available meat in Ireland for centuries. Cattle were prized for their dairy products rather than their beef and sheep were used for their wool. Pork could be cured by local farmers, who also grew their own vegetables. Pork and cabbage were simmered together for a long time in a large pot and the two tastes merged. Potatoes in their skins were always cooked separately.

Nowadays we like cooking our vegetables more quickly, so the cabbage for the dish is usually boiled just before the meal. However, if some of the bacon water is used for this, we have the authentic bacon and cabbage taste.


  • 2 lb lean bacon (pork belly including the rind or a boiling ham)
  • 1 head chopped cabbage, chopped roughly
  • browned breadcrumbs


Place bacon in pot (you can add 10 cloves and a chopped onion if you wish) and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and skim the white scum off the top. Simmer gently for about 1 1/2 hours. When tender, keep the bacon in a warm place in its water.

Take 1/2 cup of the bacon water and the same amount of water and bring to a boil. Throw in the cabbage and cook it quickly (about 10 minutes) until the cabbage is tender. Drain well.

(If you wish to have potatoes as a side, boil 4 lbs of them in the bacon liquid for approximately 30 minutes. You can then add the cabbage to the water, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes until the cabbage is tender.)

Sprinkle the bacon with browned breadcrumbs and serve everything very hot with parsley sauce.


Parsley Sauce

This simple but popular sauce is relished with boiled bacon or boiled salt beef. The good taste of the sauce depends on using parsley lavishly. For family meals, there’s no need to cop finely. Just snip the parsley with scissors; it’s much quicker.


  • 3 3/4 tsp parsley, chopped roughly
  • 1/4 stick butter or margering
  • 2 tbs plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 tsp salt


Keeping the chopped parsley beside you, melt the butter gently in a saucepan. Add the flour and mix to a smooth paste.
Add the milk very gradually, stirring carefully all the time. Add the salt.
As soon as the sauce starts to simmer, add 3/4 of the parsley and cook for several minutes. The mixture should become thick but pourable.
Add the rest of the parsley, stir, and pour into a very hot sauceboat. Serve at once.


My wife and I will be giving this a try today, in honor of tomorrow’s celebration. I hope you’ll try it too!