Sifting Through It ~ Eileen M. Cunniffe


Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl and toss with your hands to give the bread a light, airy consistency.  Add the softened butter, again with your hands, followed by the raisins.


I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve copied over the recipe, double-checking quantities and duplicating the carefully worded instructions from a yellowed index card I keep in a cookie jar with my other favorites.  On occasion I’ve written it down from memory—perhaps forgetting a word here or there, but never failing to include the part about using the hands to give the bread a light, airy consistency, as if omitting those words would somehow slight the memory of Great Aunt Susie, my grandmother’s sister, who passed her recipe along to my mother, who passed it along to me.

For years I’ve been faithfully following this recipe, happily sinking my hands nearly wrist-deep into a floury mess to meld slivers of softened butter—one quarter-pound per loaf—into the dry ingredients.  And for years I’ve shared the recipe with anyone who asks for it, happily inscribing Aunt Susie’s name at the top of every index card.  In keeping with the spirit of the recipe, I always copy it over by hand, sifting each word through my fingers every time.

And why wouldn’t I write “Susie McGuckin’s Irish Soda Bread (Scone)” on each copy?  My earliest recollections of eating the bread are at Aunt Susie’s dining room table—sometimes after a meal, sometimes just as the centerpiece of an evening visit.  Social calls from one house to another for no particular occasion were a high form of entertainment during the 1960s, at least in my family.  An announced visit to see Aunt Susie and Uncle Hughie was a treat any day of the week, and the sooner you knew you were going, the more time you had to anticipate it.

Aunt Susie always met us at the front door of their tidy stone twin, as if she’d been looking forward to the visit as much as we had.  She was a great hugger, and she held on long enough to let you know she meant it.  Uncle Hughie hovered nearby, waving everyone into the living room and waiting until we were all settled on the sofa, chairs or bottom steps before he re-installed himself in his recliner, happy for a diversion from his newspaper.

A visit always began in the living room with polite conversation among the adults and a chance to catch up on local and long-distance family news. Aunt Susie offered compliments on the good manners of her great nieces and nephews (which tended to be better in her living room than they were in our own).  She dandled the littlest baby on her lap and cooed over how much he’d grown in such a short time.  And then, as we knew she would, she dashed off to the kitchen and set the kettle to boil.

We never lingered long in Aunt Susie’s living room because it was obvious from the moment we walked in the door that we were destined to wind up in the dining room, which had all the trappings of an elegant tea party on full display.

In my mind I see a crisp white tablecloth covered with delicate plates and a matching teapot dressed in a quilted cozy.  I hear the gentle clink-clink of spoons in teacups and see a cut-glass butter dish and a shallow bowl filled with orange marmalade being passed up one side of the table and down the other.  Each slab of soda bread would have been generously slathered with both toppings, then washed down with tea.

Aunt Susie made me and my younger sister Angie feel grown up by pouring tea for us at her well-dressed table, while our little brothers got milk or maybe ginger ale.  The tea was black and bitter to begin with, although for a young guest it was laced with so much milk and sugar that its color was nearly indistinguishable from the pearly inside of the cup it came in.

Even though Aunt Susie had prettily arranged packaged cookies on a plate and let us help ourselves to them, she’d serve Angie and I each a slice of soda bread, as if that somehow elevated our status at her table.  Aunt Susie would clap her hands together and laugh out loud at my childish habit of meticulously picking every raisin out of the bread (a habit that persisted well into adulthood).  She never minded that I left a small brown pile of uneaten fruit at the edge of my plate.  But she never left out the raisins, either.

Sometimes one of Aunt Susie’s tea parties would end with me and Angie staying over for a few happy days.  We were lucky enough to fit perfectly into the space between Aunt Susie’s emptying nest and the arrival of her own grandchildren.  She made such a fuss over us—in all the best ways—and loved showing us off to her neighbors.  Not once during one of these visits did an ice cream truck pass Aunt Susie’s thick hedge of hydrangeas (Angie and I still call them “Aunt Susie flowers”) without Uncle Hughie or our teenaged cousin Mary Ann being dispatched to the curb on our behalf.


Beat the eggs.  Add the buttermilk and blend.  Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the egg mixture slowly into the center.  Blend well with a spoon.

I don’t remember ever watching Aunt Susie make her soda bread, although I spent plenty of time in her kitchen.  In fact, I don’t remember her cooking much of anything, although I am certain I never once went home hungry from her house.

I loved the cabinet where she kept her spices, as well as staples like baking powder and baking soda, both of which are called for in the recipe.  Behind a door under the kitchen counter was a round, multi-tiered revolving shelf loaded with tins and jars.  I loved to spin the shelf so the shapes and scents of the containers blurred, sometimes making me sneeze.  Aunt Susie never stopped me from playing this game, even when I got to be tall enough that I had to crouch low beside the shelf to spin it, using the pretext of amusing a younger sibling.  Every other spice cabinet I’ve since happened upon (or stocked) has reminded me of that corner of Aunt Susie’s kitchen.

I do remember watching my mother make soda bread, almost always for special occasions like Saint Patrick’s Day or Christmas. Year after year, she sent my father off to work with freshly baked loaves for each of those holidays.  Sometimes she sent us to school with holiday loaves for our teachers.  After the bread cooled on wire racks, Mom always wrapped it tightly in tin foil and sometimes stuck a bow on top or tied a ribbon around a finished loaf to complete the packaging.

After college, I began my own tradition of baking soda bread for co-workers, and I’ve hardly missed a St. Patrick’s Day or a Christmas in three decades. Aunt Susie’s recipe doesn’t say anything about wrapping the bread in tin foil, but it’s the only thing I know to do with the loaves once I’ve baked them.  I imagine in the rural Ireland of Aunt Susie’s early years they would have used a linen tea towel.  I think of the foil as an American ingredient we’ve folded into the old tradition.

My parents both are first-generation Irish-Americans.  I’ve always understood making soda bread for the outside world to be a way of celebrating our Irishness, of sharing it with other people.  Still, when I was growing up, except for those two times of the year, soda bread usually only appeared in our house when Irish relatives visited; or, as I noticed over time, when someone died and one of us kids would be sent to the grocery store for buttermilk so a loaf could be baked and delivered to the bereaved household, a kind of comfort food.

We never called it soda bread back then—we only ever called it “scone”—a word that rhymed with “gone,” not “stone,” although a loaf is as dense and as heavy as a river rock.  I still don’t understand why it would be called soda bread: the recipe calls for only one quarter-teaspoon of baking soda, the smallest quantity of any of the nine ingredients.

My mother didn’t sift the dry ingredients with her hands.  She scooped flour into a rickety aluminum sifter, then squeezed the looped handle to scrape a thin metal wheel across a mesh surface.  I never could see much difference between what was spooned into the sifter from above and what snowed into the waiting bowl below.  I took it on faith that this step mattered.  Later, I came to see the mechanical sifter as my mother’s more modern way of achieving the light, airy consistency mentioned in Aunt Susie’s recipe.

I remember a feeling of ritual about watching my mother make soda bread as a child, and a thrill of excitement at being old enough to help grease and flour the pans, measure out ingredients or sift the flour.  I remember the warm, doughy smell that spread through the house as the loaves began to rise.  I remember looking for golden-brown bits of the crusty top I could break off and eat without getting caught.  And I remember watching my mother’s father pour leftover buttermilk into a jelly glass and drink the thick, tangy liquid down in one gulp; as a child, it made me shudder to think about drinking buttermilk, even if it did somehow taste like Ireland to him.

When I went to Ireland for the first time in my thirties, I was so used to Aunt Susie’s scone recipe that I had a hard time swallowing—literally—the dry little cakes that went by the same name there.  I’ve been back several times since and I have yet to see a loaf of homemade soda bread in any of the dozen or more family homes I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, including the one where my grandmother and Aunt Susie grew up.  I can’t get enough of the ubiquitous brown bread in Ireland, baked fresh or fetched from the grocery in a plastic bag.  But I never have warmed up to the soda bread there.  Even with butter, it’s dry and disappointing.

Perhaps it only tastes so good here because it evokes there.  Or maybe they’re just skimping on the buttermilk.


The dough should be heavy, but not too wet.  If it seems too dry, add more buttermilk.


It always seems too dry, so I always add more buttermilk.  And I always make two scones at a time, because you can’t buy less than a quart of buttermilk, and what else can you do with it once you’ve opened the carton?  Following Aunt Susie’s recipe, I use my hands to sift the dry ingredients together and then to work the butter (already sliced in small bits) into the flour mixture.  In fact, a small confession—much smaller than the one I’m working up to—I also use my hands to work the wet ingredients into the dry ones, a sticky but satisfying step I invented myself.

While I’m at it, one more small confession:  these days I leave an ounce or two of buttermilk in the carton so I can savor it after I’ve placed the dough-laden pans in the oven.  My grandfather would have loved to catch me at that.

Only once in my whole history of knowing Aunt Susie could the words “heavy” and “wet” have been used to describe her.  I was not quite ten when Uncle Hughie died—suddenly, of a heart attack, a few years after he’d retired.  I remember leaving the funeral home after the viewing, walking through the parking lot with my parents and Aunt Susie.  She walked slowly, maybe even a little unsteadily, and she leaned hard on my shoulder, her face still wet with tears.  I felt such an odd blend of emotions—sad for the heaviness of her sorrow, grateful for the opportunity to do something for her, completely at a loss for what to say at such a grown-up moment.

Of course Aunt Susie had known other sorrows, too, but those I was too young to comprehend at the time.  Only later did I begin to understand how much the loss of a sister would have weighed on her middle years, how heavy her heart would have been during the time she was such a happy presence in my childhood.  And only now in my own middle age do I fully appreciate how much of herself Aunt Susie poured into the hollow well of her sister’s family, as if she had all the buttermilk in the world to spare.

It’s no wonder she was an honored guest at every birthday, every christening, every first communion, every graduation, every wedding, every special occasion for our extended family for as long as she lived—nearly 85 years.  It’s no wonder I cooked up my own tradition of having tea parties with my nieces and nephews when they were little and came to visit me, even if I sometimes substituted fruity herbal teas or juice for the real thing in my teapot and made waffles the signature treat at my dining room table.  And it’s no wonder I still use soda bread as an excuse to invoke Aunt Susie’s name, to hold onto a little slice of her.  Sometimes I even bake a couple of random loaves between St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas, for a birthday party or a brunch.

“Your soda bread was especially good today,” my mother noted at the end of a family gathering at my house as I wrapped a slab of it in foil for her to take home. We’ve broken so many loaves together over the years that the bread itself is rarely discussed, although the gesture of baking it is always appreciated.  So I was surprised Mom thought my latest loaf was worth mentioning.  I figured she was just reacting to how moist it was.

“I have a heavy hand with the buttermilk,” I confessed, thinking that would explain why this batch of bread tasted especially good.  The amount of buttermilk was, after all, the only variable allowed for in the family recipe.

“What recipe are you using?” she persisted.

“Aunt Susie’s recipe, of course.  It’s the only soda bread recipe I’ve ever used.”

I pulled out the worn index card to show her.  She knew at a glance it wasn’t the recipe she knew by heart.

“That’s definitely not Aunt Susie’s recipe.  It’s good, though.”

The party was over and Mom was halfway out the door, Dad already waiting in the car, so she didn’t tell me how she knew my recipe wasn’t Aunt Susie’s.  I had to admit the chances of Mom being in possession of the real recipe were better than good—she was, after all, a generation closer to the source.  Also, upon careful inspection, I could see how I had penciled in the words “Susie McGuckin’s” above my original black-ink heading, “Irish Soda Bread (Scone).”  But how different could the recipes be?  What’s half a cup of buttermilk among family?

Still, I began to wonder where my recipe had come from and when I had started attributing it to Aunt Susie.  Was it around the time of her death, now more than twenty years ago?  And was that also when I’d begun to substitute plump golden raisins for the brown ones I so despised?  Or was it later, perhaps out of guilt, when I started to omit the raisins altogether and began to experiment with cranberry scones at Christmas time and chocolate chip scones in other seasons?  I remember Mom suggesting I may have strayed too far from the Irish tradition with the chocolate chips, although she didn’t object to how it tasted; and she was the first one of us to substitute cranberries for raisins.

One day at my parents’ house, shortly after I discovered I’d been passing off someone else’s recipe as Aunt Susie’s, I pulled out Mom’s recipe box to compare the true version with mine.  I discovered a whole collection of soda bread recipes in that box, one of which was attributed to Aunt Susie. As I scanned the list of ingredients and jotted them onto a scrap of paper, I could see obvious differences from the recipe I used.

Later, when I put the two lists side by side on my kitchen counter, I could hardly believe my eyes:  Except for four cups of flour and two eggs, our other ingredients didn’t match at all.  Mom’s version of Aunt Susie’s recipe doesn’t even call for those offensive raisins, which I have dutifully included in every copy I’ve ever handed out, despite my own deep reservations.

Where my recipe calls for half a cup of sugar, Aunt Susie’s calls for a full cup.  Where mine calls for a cup-and-a-half of buttermilk (for starters), Aunt Susie’s calls for half a cup of buttermilk and half a cup of whole milk. Aunt Susie used four teaspoons of baking powder to my two, and no salt compared with my half-teaspoon.

And get this:  my measly quarter-teaspoon of baking soda is a quarter-teaspoon more than Aunt’s Susie’s recipe calls for.  That’s right, her soda bread did not contain even a trace of baking soda.

The biggest discrepancy, though, is also the biggest surprise:  Susan Donnelly McGuckin, born and bred in butter-lovingIreland, used not so much as a dollop of the artery-clogging substance to make her scone.  Her American-born, generally health-conscious great-niece has for decades been making soda bread with a stick of butter in every loaf, in deference to her Irish roots and the great esteem in which she holds the memory of her great aunt.  And she’s passed off this buttery impersonation as the real deal to scores of unsuspecting Americans who obviously don’t know any better.

This also means my mother, who fondly recalls being discovered at a tender age sitting under her mother’s kitchen table eating butter—just butter—with her fingers, has never baked butter into her soda bread.  Although, as previously noted, the slathering of butter onto the baked bread has always been encouraged in our family.

Furthermore, Aunt Susie’s recipe is no more than a list of ingredients, carefully transcribed in my mother’s neat handwriting, with the only instruction being to bake the bread at 350˚ for 45 minutes.  No advice about using one’s hands, making a well in the dry ingredients, or sensing the subtle distinction between “heavy” and “too wet.”

In hindsight, I’m sure Aunt Susie would have thought any self-respecting baker who had that list of ingredients handed to her ought to already know to mix the wet and dry ingredients separately, then introduce them to each other in some appropriate way.

When I stopped to think about it, I realized Aunt Susie probably didn’t even use a recipe—she just had a feel for how much of this and how much of that to toss into a bowl.  The recipe in my mother’s box might be no more than a list of ingredients Aunt Susie rattled off on the phone for her one day.

“Now let’s see,” she began as she twisted the cord on the heavy black phone that sat on a small table in her dining room.  “You start with four cups of flour.  And about a cup of sugar…”

If the phone had been in the kitchen, she could have opened her spice rack and spun it around to remind her of the ingredients.  Maybe she simply forgot to mention the baking soda.  And perhaps the butter too.

Clearly my recipe is not the family heirloom I’ve always thought it to be—although to be honest it has every advantage over Aunt Susie’s recipe in producing a moist, buttery scone.  No wonder my grandfather wound up with a full glass of buttermilk every time my mother baked scones.  No wonder I learned from an early age that soda bread is always served with gobs of butter (Aunt Susie would have said “buther”) and marmalade.


Dust hands with flour and mold dough into a round.  Place into a greased 9″ pan and dust the top generously with flour.


How many times have I copied those words without once picking up on the obvious clue that this could not have been Aunt Susie’s recipe?  A “round”?  We’ve always made our soda bread in loaf pans, not rounds.  I always make a parenthetical note on the copies I give out indicating that I prefer a loaf pan; but Aunt Susie’s real recipe never would have required such an annotation.

Once I had this small epiphany, others followed.  For example:  In the first thirty years of my life, when I frequently had the pleasure of spending time with Aunt Susie, I never heard her utter a phrase even half as pretentious as “light, airy consistency.”  It would be fair to say she herself had a light, airy consistency; and a soft, powdery cheek; and a voice that was equal parts whistle and lilt, wrapped up in an Irish brogue.

Aunt Susie could comfort you and laugh at you at the same time, although you never felt she was laughing at you, just that she was lightening the mood, helping you see how small your little crisis was.

And I’m sure that if she did dust her soda bread with flour, she would have done so generously, because generous was the essence of Aunt Susie.

The soda bread I bake with a generous quarter-pound of butter in every loaf must taste different from the version Aunt Susie made and my mother learned to imitate.  But I can’t say I ever really noticed the difference while I was eating it.  Maybe their butterless bread was no better than the disappointing little tea cakes I’ve sampled in Ireland.

I mean if you take away the raisins, which I always did, what was left for a child to find appealing in a slice of that bread?  A trace of fruity residue in the spots I’d plucked the raisins from, and a slight tang imparted by the buttermilk.  But otherwise, a dry loaf that had no business masquerading as a dessert, and should have sent me reaching for the cookie plate every time.  But it didn’t.

Perhaps all along I’ve been savoring the butter and the marmalade, not giving proper attention to the bread below.  I’m not sure the syrupy suspension that holds the marmalade together, undercut by the bitterness that lingers in the strips of orange rind, would have appealed to me as a child.  I wasn’t the most adventurous eater, so it seems unlikely my palate would have been charmed by such complexity.  A more likely explanation is that I perceived my willingness to eat soda bread and marmalade as a measure of my worthiness to drink tea with the grownups.  Or even more importantly, I saw it as a way to demonstrate to them that I took my Irishness—and theirs—seriously.

And what could be more Irish than the layer of sweet cream butter that lurked beneath the marmalade?  Butter that had been taken out of the fridge far enough in advance to be spreadable, but was still cool enough that it didn’t melt until it landed on my tongue.  The pleasure of this buttery sensation surely would have compensated for a lack of shortening in the bread itself and just might have overridden the encounter between my young taste buds and the bittersweet marmalade.

If she had put butter in her soda bread, I like to think Aunt Susie would have used her hands for the task, like I do.  Aunt Susie’s hands were always busy.  She knew how to brush her fingers across your cheek or squeeze your arm in just the right way, at just the right time.  She could deftly gauge your length and your width using a measuring tape and, in an afternoon, whip up matching dresses for you and your sister on her dining room table without a pattern.  In rare idle moments, Aunt Susie’s long, thin fingers would flit around her gray hair, poking at stray bobby pins, then settle nervously in her lap.

Maybe I let myself believe I was using Aunt Susie’s recipe because it was easy to picture her pushing up her sleeves and working her hands into that wet-heavy-sticky dough, which come to think of it, produces a bread that is neither light nor airy.


Using the wrong end of a fork, cut a deep cross into the dough to prevent the top from cracking and to give the bread a traditional look.

Bake at 350˚ one hour or until well browned.


Good, practical advice, that part about the fork.  It almost sounds like something Aunt Susie might have said, although I’m not sure she would have mixed baking advice with religion, even though the towering stone church she attended for years sat just across the driveway from her kitchen window.

After I compared my recipe with Mom’s, I called to be sure I hadn’t simply forgotten to copy butter from her list of ingredients.

“There’s no butter in it,” Mom confirmed, “That’s why we always serve it on the side.”

“Well, my recipe calls for a quarter pound of butter,” I admitted, “and I still serve it on the side.”

I also explained that my recipe had three times as much buttermilk, but she dismissed that: “I always add extra buttermilk,” she admitted, “and I never use a whole cup of sugar, maybe half a cup at most.”

We laughed to think we’d both been giving out different recipes in Aunt Susie’s name, even though my version isn’t even close, Mom improvises liberally with hers and we both sometimes substitute other ingredients for the raisins Aunt Susie failed to mention, although she certainly used them. We agreed Aunt Susie would toss back her head and have a good, long laugh with us—and maybe a little bit at us—if  she knew what had become of her recipe in our hands.

I don’t think she would have minded the substitutions, though.  Aunt Susie knew a thing or two about making due with the ingredients at hand.  And while she never would have pretended to be a substitute for her missing sister, she managed to improvise the roles of “aunt” and “great aunt” until they took on a flavor that was uniquely hers.

Of course people were eating soda bread inIrelandlong before they had the luxury of ovens that could be calibrated to 350˚.  I’ve seen recipes that call for cooking scone in an iron skillet over an open flame.  In fact, I used to have a recipe just like that,  printed on an oversized Irish linen tea towel, which hung on the butter-yellow kitchen wall of my first apartment. The illustration that accompanied the recipe showed a skillet with a round, brown loaf being tended by a white-bearded leprechaun—just the sort to cook up a batch of blarney about a two-pound loaf of bread with a light, airy consistency.

I’ve long since lost track of that tea towel.

But I suspect, now that I know where my soda bread recipe didn’t come from, that woven into the threads of that Irish linen was a list of nine ingredients, two of which were a cup-and-a-half of buttermilk and a quarter-pound of butter, all of which I may have copied onto an index card a quarter-century ago, along with some overly fancy language about how to assemble those ingredients.

What’s funny is that regardless of the recipes we start with, most of the time the soda bread we bake in my family winds up tasting more or less the same—that is, it tastes like a tradition that’s been handed down from one country to another, one generation to the next, one oven, one loaf pan, one index card at a time.  Any way you sift it, any way you slice it, each loaf is a reminder of good old Irish hospitality at good old Great Aunt Susie’s dining room table, “buther” or not.