Fruit & Nut Soda Bread

 “We’ve always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English” – Winston Churchill

My foray into the world of Baking with Wholegrains continues to be, shall we say, challenging. Two batches of rhubarb and orange spelt muffins were decidedly average (tasty but resembling ice hockey pucks) and let us never speak about the wholewheat cinnamon buns I attempted last weekend. I expect it isn’t really helped by the fact that I am not a baker at heart and absolutely cannot countenance the prospect of endless baking trial and error. I quite like making pastry and it no longer gives me The Fear like it once did – I pretty much own my pastry now, rather than the other way round. My lizard-like cold blood and terrible circulation definitely help, as does having a husband who ranks chocolate eclairs somewhere just below our son and three places above me in his affection league table (mangoes and Jennifer Garner complete the Top Five).   I am also trying to get better at bread-making because I outlawed all supermarket bread in our house a few months ago (more on that another time) but despite my wonderful intentions that really just resulted in my spending more money at our local bakery instead, which wasn’t really the point.

But biscuits, muffins and cakes? Meh. I know it should suit my slightly control freak Type A personality what with all its measurements and science and stuff, but I just find it all a lot of effort for very little return. I was an uncommitted viewer of The Great British Bake Off  and I don’t even own a copy of Nigella’s Domestic Goddess (audible gasp!). Of course, there is the occasional blindingly good recipe that restores my faith in domestic baked goods (Nigella’s Guinness gingerbread being one in fact), but I don’t really care that much whether my house smells of freshly baked cakes – give me Eau de Roast Chicken any time – and I certainly can’t get to Nigel Slater levels of devotion about it all (i.e. “I just can’t sleep at night if there isn’t a freshly made cake in the house” )*. 

So why do I bother? To be honest, I don’t really know but I suppose it’s partly because I am a bit British about these things. It’s nice to have a piece of cake with a cup of tea at 4pm on a Saturday, isn’t it? And God forbid what if somebody were to pop round? (Nobody has “popped round” to our house unannouced at any point in the past 6 years). It’s also partly because of the child – I think it’s good for kids to have the odd muffin or brownie or bit of banana bread and it helps to break up the breakfast roster of dry shredded wheat (no milk Mummy!!) and boiled eggs from time to time.  Now, if I could outsource this particularly culinary function I definitely would. I don’t feel any great need to become an Accomplished Baker. But it is really quite difficult to find nice wholegrain baked goods to buy. There are, of course, myriad gluten and dairy free options kicking around (I live in West London, after all) but surprisingly little in the way of good old-fashioned bit of brown flour, bit less refined sugar. (Previous readers will know what I think about switching to (often very refined) gluten-free flour just for the sake of it).

I decided that I needed to do some research (yawn) rather than continue to just substitute whole grains for plain flour at random, close my eyes and hope for the best. Because that doesn’t really work at all. Not even with white spelt, despite what many say. It’s because of that whole SCIENCE thing with baking. Wholegrain flours (and, to an even greater degree, the non-grain flours like buckwheat, oat and teff) behave differently from plain flour when baking because they have completely different properties – we’re talking different gluten-protein structures, texture, absorbency, and – not unimportantly in my book – flavour.   It turns out that the best way to start on the wholegrain baking road is to start adding the ‘alternative’ flours alongside plain flour, swapping out say 30-50% of the white flour for the new one and seeing what happens. Those who bake a lot with wholewheat flour, for example, will already know what I am talking about – most (reliable) recipes for things like wholewheat muffins or breads usually suggest some sort of blend with plain flour to ensure that you get the structure, moisture and rise that you are looking for and to balance that sometimes almost sharp wholewheat flavour.

OK, so it’s not perfect for those waging a full-on war against refined wheat flour, but it’s a start and that’s enough for me (for now). As I have said before, a cake is a cake. If you eat them every day you will probably end up looking like a doughnut, no matter what flour you use. But if you can swap some of that plain flour for wholegrain it definitely does mean that your cake, muffin, whatever will be nutritionally better than one made just with plain flour when you do treat yourself or decide to have one for breakfast when dashing out of the house in the morning. And in many cases, it will actually taste better – wholegrains used well can add a nutty, malty or milky complexity that is really good. It’s this sort of small ‘trading up’ that, in my world at least, makes the progression to eating better more realistic and sustainable, rather than launching straight into banana quinoa cupcakes or raw cheesecakes and becoming disheartened.

Once I embraced my new wholegrain baking philosophy it occurred to me that I already had a most excellent recipe that fit the bill: a fruit and nut soda bread made with 50% wholewheat flour, loaded with nuts and sweetened with a little sugar, maple syrup and dried fruit. And here it is.

If you have any brilliant wholegrain baking recipes that really work – let me know via the comments section below or here.

Fruit and Nut Soda Bread
Fruit and Nut Soda Bread

Difficulty: Easy
Crazy Ingredient Rating: Low

I came across this on a bread course at Leiths cookery school and have made it many times since.  It is unbelievably easy and takes no time at all.  It is somewhere between a bread and a cake (sort of like banana bread is, but with a much more open crumb/texture) and is a brilliant thing to eat warm with lots of butter for “afternoon tea” (I did so when we had friends staying and it was demolished while a tray of brownies went half-finished) but is also excellent with cheese, particularly blue, if you roll in a Downton Abbey type way and often take a cheeseboard at dinner. I suspect it would make a nice addition to a Ploughmans as well if that’s what you’re into of a weekend.

If you have made soda bread before you know how brilliant an introduction to bread making it is – no yeast, no kneading, no proving. It’s pretty much just a cake mix, raised by bicarbonate of soda. The only trick to a soda bread is working really quickly (and lightly) once you have added the buttermilk to the dry ingredients as the bicarbonate of soda starts working as soon as it is contact with the liquid and you want that reaction to happen as far as possible in the hot oven.  And you really should eat it on the day it’s made as it dries out quite quickly – it does freeze well though so if you decide to make 4 small loaves rather than one large one you can stash a couple in the freezer.

Sugar Avoider? I have not yet had a go at this switching out the caster sugar for xylitol or for a proper unrefined alternative like Rapadura or Coconut Sugar, so can’t tell you how well it would work. If I get round to it soon (it’s on my list…) I will update this post. You could almost certainly switch it for regular brown or golden caster but most aren’t really, if at all, that much better for you so I haven’t bothered, particularly as the total amount in this is below my sugar freak-out level for treat things, particularly considering how much bread this makes.

Buttermilk is getting easier to find in supermarkets and Ocado stocks it. If you can’t find it, use normal milk and add 1tsp cream of tartar to the flour (or failing that 1.5 tablespoons of lemon juice to the milk and let it stand for 10-15 minutes before using – you need to do this to create something acidic to react with the bicarbonate of soda).

I recently made this with the brown soda bread flour from Shipton Mill (where I buy all my plain, bread and wholewheat flour from online) and it was fantastic, but any good wholewheat flour will do.  You need normal plain and wholewheat for this – NOT bread/strong flours.

For one large loaf (approx 1kg) or 4 smaller ones (approx 250g or 15cm diameter), you will need:

  • 75g mixed dried fruit (apple is really nice in the mix)
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 225g flour (50% plain white 50% wholewheat)
  • 1 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 25g butter
  • 3-4 tbsp caster sugar (depending how sweet you like things)
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 25g hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 145ml buttermilk (see note above)
  • extra milk for mixing (maybe)

Preheat the oven to 190C/170C fan and grease your baking sheet (or line with baking parchment).

  1. Place the fruit in a small bowl and just cover with boiling water. Stir in the maple syrup and leave to infuse.
  2. Sift the flours, mixed spice and salt in a large bowl, stirring in any bran left in the sieve from the wholewheat flour. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs (I do this bit in a food processor as I am lazy – I sieve the flours straight into the processor bowl, whizz it up with the butter and tip into a large bowl and go from there). Stir in the sugar and the bicarbonate of soda.
  3. Strain the fruit, discarding the liquid and add to the flour mix.
  4. Stir in the nuts.
  5. Add the buttermilk (or milk) to the flour/fruit/nut mix and mix very gently until you can bring the mix together into a soft but not sticky dough. You may need to add a small amount of extra milk.
  6. Tip out onto your baking sheet and form into a round slightly rounded loaf, or divide into four small ones.
  7. Flour a wooden spoon handle and use it to press in a cross about 2cm deep on the top of the loaf/each loaf.   (If you are Irish/of Irish extraction: prick the centre of the four sections with a knife to let the fairies out. I LOVE that tradition)
  8. Bake in the oven for 35-45 minutes for a large loaf (20-30 for the smaller ones), until it is well risen, golden and no ‘grey’ appears in the cross.
  9. Cool on a rack covered with a clean tea towel (to stop too much moisture escaping).

Best eaten that day although will toast well the next. They do freeze well for up to about a month – defrost and then blast in a 180C oven for 10-15 minutes to ‘refresh’

Kitchen song of the Day: We Can’t Stop – Miley Cyrus (Bangerz) (no, really)


  • or something along those lines.


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