This week, in preparation for Saint Patrick’s Day, I went to visit my mother, Margaret, and we baked an Irish bread, using a recipe that has been handed down through at least six generation of women in our family. We talked about the recipe, how her family celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day, and about Irish American culture more generally. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
Margaret: This is a recipe that I assume my great grandmother, Bridget Kiley, brought with her from Ireland when she came in 1880, or that she got it from her mother, Agnes Mahoney Kiley, and my mother made it every year, but her mother also made it, and over time I’ve changed the recipe just a little because my mother made it with powdered milk and I think she did that because it was Depression time and that’s what they got when they got their ration stamps so she just continued to use powdered milk and that’s all I ever knew. She also didn’t use all milk, she used water and milk, which again was a way for her to save money because of the Depression. This whole recipe I have always thought comes from a people who were poor and that’s one of the things I like about it; it has almost nothing in it.
I always start, when I make this recipe, by greasing and flouring the pans so that when I get to the end I’m not crazy, saying, I don’t have the pans ready. So one of the things I’ve learned is to grease and flour the pans. We’re going to make a double recipe today. And we’re going to make it vegan. We’ll use almond milk. I use Pam to spray the pans primarily because I buy Crisco and then I end up throwing it out because I don’t ever use it for anything but this. So I start by spraying the pans with Pam.
Maggie: And your mother used Crisco?
Margaret: She used Crisco. So that’s one change I’ve made cause I got tired of throwing it out. Then I flour the pan. And my mother made this mostly at Saint Patrick’s Day but something at Christmas and Thanksgiving. When I was younger for Christmas I would make Irish bread for family and friends. Dad and I would make baskets of goodies and we’d always out in an Irish bread. Also we made just simple breads. It was a nice way to let people know we were remembering them without spending a million dollars, but it ended up costing a lot of money because we’d make fudge, zucchini bread… And we’d have like an assembly line.
So the way the recipe works- I have to get the recipe- the original recipe is for using three mugs of flour but because we’re making two breads I’m using a bigger recipe and this has actually the measurements- the one for just one bread really doesn’t have the measurements, it’s measured using mugs, but I started using measuring cups cause I couldn’t find the right size mugs, the ones my mother used. And my mother used the sifter.
Maggie: I remember that.
Margaret: But I’ve cut that step out (laughs). And it doesn’t taste any different to me! But my mother was a more meticulous baker than I am. Sometimes you could use one of these strainers if you want. We’ll use the strainer so you’ll have a little bit of your grandmother in this. We use five and a third cups of flour. It’s most important to have Irish music playing since it’s Saint Patrick’s Day! (Puts on Danny Boy.)
Maggie: It’s going to make a better Irish bread?
Margaret: Yes. Definitely. And it’s also something you do with your daughter and your mother and you never forget it. You think to yourself, one day, I remember when mom and I did that. Some of my fondest memories are around Saint Patrick’s Day. It was just a fun time (measuring out flour). You see, I’m not that precise (laughs). Now shake the strainer and stir it with a wooden spoon. Some things I only use wooden spoons for. Shake and stir. It used to be, to make two breads, you’d use four mugs. The mugs we used to use, my mother bought at Woolworth’s in Cleary Square and they were always the same size. They were the always the cups we use to drink tea out of. They were this color (points to a beige mug) but they were round and I have never been able to find them; they were the best. Here’s your apron.
That’s it with the sifting. It’s highly overrated.
Maggie: We don’t have the patience for that (laughs).
Margaret: I don’t have the patience for it. That’s why I made you do it! (Laughs.) So I once went through to try to get the equivalent so I know it’s 7/8 of a cup.
Maggie: I know Nini (my grandmother) authorized me to put extra sugar in the recipe if I were so inclined (laughs). I told her I wanted to put a whole cup instead of a half cup in the recipe for one bread and she thought that was delightful.
Margaret: Well, if Nini authorized it far be it from me… (laughs). So you want to just round it up to a cup?
Maggie: Let’s make it just a little less than a cup.
Margaret: Now, always use the dry ingredients first. Some people would interpret teaspoons of baking powder as one of those little flat measuring things but I always use this much (a heaping spoonful). I use one for each mug of flour. I think it’s a teaspoon of salt but don’t use a heaping teaspoon because it will come out too salty. I think the baking soda and the salt has something to do with why it rises. Just use a regular kitchen spoon but don’t make it a heaping spoonful. Now stir it all up.
Maggie: We’re mixing flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt, right? And we only sifted the flour.
Margaret: And you don’t even need to do that. I was just trying to be fancy (laughs). Now we’re getting to the point where we’re going to add the milk. If you hadn’t greased and floured the pans first you’d be cursing yourself because it would be all ready to go into the pans and you wouldn’t have your pans ready. You really have to stir this well. Just use your hands to stir it because it’s so important to get everything mixed together so it rises properly. Next we add the raisins. I don’t use a measuring cup for the raisins; I just put a lot of raisins in. I use my biggest mug. And Michael (my son) taught me this trick: you can soak the raisins in water before you put them in and then drain the water and put them in, and that keeps the bread from getting dry. So this is a good amount for raisins, Maggie.
Maggie: Ok, one big mug.
Margaret: And if you want, you can add more. Then stir it all up. Ok, now for the milk. I can’t write this down- you have to see it. Always add in a good amount. Close to a mug full. Then you stir it. Did you get that song I sent you? Mary Black? Song for Ireland? I love that’s song. At this point my mother would start adding water but we can afford milk. She would add water after using up all the milk she originally poured and I know it was to save money. Because we didn’t have much money. It has to be wet and stiff. Add a little splash at a time and at one point you will say to yourself, “perfect.” So you can see, it’s getting there. All the flour is a little wet and there’s just a little bit of dry flour at the bottom. It’s getting very close. At this point, when it’s almost done, I’m switching to my hands. Before that I use a wooden spoon. It just seems like you shouldn’t use anything but a wooden spoon to make a recipe that your great great grandmother used to make Irish bread with. So you can see now that it’s wet and stiff and that’s the right texture. So what I do next…. Can you open that drawer and get a knife and slice this dough down the middle? I just need a guide. (Takes half of the dough and puts half in each pan.) Your goal is to get them about even and when it cooks it tends to spread out in the pan. Now you can put them in the oven. I preheated the oven to 350 and I always use an oven thermometer. Now you can use Nini’s timer. Set it for 50 minutes so we can start checking it after 50. And that’s it.
Margaret: We always used to sing all these songs (the Irish songs playing in the background) on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Maggie: Around the piano?
Margaret: We’d just sing them. Or around the piano. My mother or grandmother would play. They both played by ear. Do you remember at Nini’s wake? Were singing all these songs. This is one of the best memories I have. You said, wait a minute. You had been very silent through all of it- you loved Nini- and you said wait, we didn’t sing Clancy Lowered the Boom! And nobody knew the words but you and you insisted on singing it. And everybody joined in on the chorus. It was such a good tribute to Nini when you were singing that.
Maggie: And do you remember Robbie (my cousin) sang every word to Finnegan’s Wake?
Margaret: Every word. With Jeff. And I think until that time it was all so hard. And then, that’s the Irish. No matter what you think, it’s the Irish. I remember when my aunt died the wake was in the house and the night before the funeral my father- he and all his friends were drunk in the kitchen- but then he sat up all night. He said, I have to sit up with her. But the tradition, you probably know, of the three day wake was because they wanted to make sure the person was dead. One of my friends at tai chi he said, you Irish, you’re so maudlin, your wakes last for days, we just stick them in the ground. And I said to him- there’s a reason for that! Back in the day you wanted to make sure the person was dead. And that song, Finnegan’s Wake, that’s the one that captures it all. Because that’s that they were doing. And he wasn’t dead! Did you realize that? It’s such a funny song.
Maggie: I had always thought he was dead and the whiskey brought him back to life.
Margaret: Oh, no, I don’t think so. Beause he says “Holy Jesus, do you think I’m dead?!” (Laughs.) And on Saint Patricks’s Day, we’d always go, when my father was riding the horses- he was a mounted policemen and that’s what they called it, riding the horses- and anyway we’d all go to see the parade and he’d lead the parade off, he and several other mounted policemen. And when he didn’t ride the horses anymore we’d get up in the morning and he we would go to Gate of Heaven Church, which was the church he was baptized in. And then we’d go to- he had a friend, Mr. Reardon- we’d go there and he’d give us all green carnations, so it was like a big deal for us. And we’d go to different parties. My grandmother had a friend, Mamie York, and we would go to her house. It was just one party after another. I think about that and all the Irish songs and how people say they’re not really Irish songs.
Maggie: Because they’re Irish American songs?
Margaret: Because they’re Irish American songs; they’re songs of people who were homesick and they passed that on and I think my parents and Nana (my grandmother), it was that same sorrow that sort of permeated the Irish people. I mean, they were funny and great story tellers and everything but there was always that sort of melancholy. And I mean I used to have it, but I don’t think I do much anymore. I don’t feel sorrow. I feel joy for having lived those days. But anyway, so that was Saint Patrick’s Day for us. My father would sometimes bring my grandmother blood pudding.
Maggie: What’s blood pudding?
Margaret: It’s pudding made of blood in a casing like sausages and they’d fry it up and she’d eat dulse, which was seaweed.
Maggie: I eat dulse.
Margaret: Well, you come by it honestly. It was the blood pudding that got me. But it was an important day. We’d see the parade. I remember standing in snowdrifts watching it. March is winter in Boston! You’d be all bundled up. My aunt Anne had a house on Broadway after they left G Street which is where my father was born. We’d go and sit on what we called her front stoop to watch the parade. You’d freeze your bottom off because it was stone with the metal railings. But they’re wonderful memories. As crazy as my childhood was there was something sacred about Saint Patrick’s Day. (Sings “cause there’s something in the Irish…”)
So that’s it Maggie. When we take them out of the oven we’ll rub Earth Balance on the top. Normally I’d use butter but these are vegan.
Maggie: How do you know it’s done? You stick a knife in it?
Margaret: No. You can use a knife, but I use this. (Takes out bread tester.) This is Nini’s bread tester. When you stick it in, it will come out clean. For a long time it was lost and then I found it. When we cleaned out Nini’s stuff this is what I took. This, her timer. Her orange juicer. You can see there’s love in them. Those are the things I care about.