Making Irish Soda Bread with the McElligotts

The Old Recipe Box

By sheer coincidence, the day we got together was close to St. Paddy’s day.  The low late winter’s sun pouring through the windows was matched in warmth by shared cups of tea and story telling. It was a joy to watch the uncanny similarities in expressions and gestures of this loving mother and daughter duo. Listening to the lilt of Mrs. McElligott’s beautiful Irish accent was enchanting.

While Donna pulled out the ingredients, I sat copying recipes from the tattered and faded scraps of paper pulled straight from Mrs. McElligott’s recipe box. Does your mother have a box like that? When was the last time you made something with her?

It was such a gift to learn a few the McElligott family’s favourite recipes directly from this beloved mentor. Maybe you’ll be inspired to do this with your own cooking guru.

Mrs. McElligott grew up in rural Ireland, near Tralee. She immigrated to England and then to Canada where she raised her family in the Beaches area of Toronto. After her husband died, she moved to Calgary to be close to her four children who had all ended up here. She loved food and took cooking classes at SAIT in her early years in town. I’ve tried to include the expert tips she shared so that you will have success with her recipes. I for one had never heard of the need to “fluff up the flour.”

Mrs. McElligott, like all great teachers, teaches by letting her students practice while she patiently guides
Mrs. McElligott, like all great teachers, lets her students practice while she patiently guides.

I’ll take a pot of tea and the gift of real friendship over fairy tales and pots of gold any day. Especially if that pot of tea comes with some sweet little Currant Scones and Mrs. McElligott’s Irish Soda Bread. May the skill of this sweet Irish woman be with you as you make her recipes.

Mrs. Sheila McElligott and Donna McElligott
Mrs. Sheila and Donna McElligott

Mrs. McElligott’s Irish Soda Bread

This is not yeast bread. This is what is known as a quick bread. The soda is doing the work of the yeast to give the wheat some levity but it is a much denser crumb and not the pretty smooth crust you might be used to.

The trick here is to try and add some air to the flour by tossing it gently (fluffing it) with your fingers before you add any wet ingredients. The tossing also mixes the soda and salt throughout.

Once you add the wet ingredients, you have to distribute them while disturbing the mixture as little as possible. It’s like making muffins. The more you stir, the tougher they will become.

Kneading is also a gentle thing. You aren’t trying to develop gluten strands; you are really just lightly forming the shape. My advice: watch this great video before you try this at home folks.

2 cups whole-wheat flour (organic and freshly milled if possible)
1 cup unbleached flour (organic and freshly milled if possible)
1½ teaspoons salt
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

About 1½ – 2 cups of buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. Sift the flour into a bowl.
3. Add the salt, baking soda and cream of tartar.
4. Lift the flour and let it flow back through your fingers, tossing it about 15 times to make it feel light and airy.

Tossing the dry ingredients to add air
Tossing the dry ingredients to add air

5. Make a hole in the middle of the flour.
6. Add 1 cup of the buttermilk and begin stirring it in judging how much more you need as you stir and aiming for fairly wet looking dough.
7. Use fingers to gather all flour in and gently knead the dough ball in the bowl.
8. Transfer the dough to a buttered and floured cooking pot like a Le Creuset Dutch oven.
9. Use a sharp knife to score the top of the bread with a cross shape (maybe this is good for Easter after all).
10. Bake at 375°F for 45 minutes.
11. Best served with Irish stew (of course).

It may not be the prettiest bread ever but is perfect with stew and quick as can be
It may not be the prettiest bread ever but is perfect with stew and quick as can be.

Currant Scones

These are so delicious and easy it’s silly. That is, it’s silly not to make them more often.

1/3 cup currants
1 cup boiling water
2 cups unbleached flour
2-3 Tablespoons sugar
5 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoons salt
1/3 cup butter, cold and cut into small pieces
1 cup milk

1. Preheat the oven to 425°F
2. Soak the currants in the boiled water for a few minutes while you gather your ingredients and then drain them and pat them dry.
3. Combine the dry ingredients
4. Cut butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender
5. Pour milk over the dry ingredients and gather the dough together with your fingers
6. Place the dough on a floured board and knead it five or six times
7. Pat the dough out till it is a ¾ inch thick disc.
8. Cut out scones with a glass that has the diameter of the scones you’d like to eat.

Cut out the size of scones you'd like to eat
Cut out the size of scones you’d like to eat.

9. Place the circles of dough on parchment paper lined or buttered and floured baking sheet.

10. Brush tops with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar.
11. Bake at 425°F for 15 – 18 minutes or until golden.
12. Serve with some clotted cream or butter and preserves and fresh pot of tea.

I think Donna forgot how good her Mom's scones are
I think Donna forgot how good her Mom’s scones are.


  1. Catherine Caldwell

    What a great story, Karen….that looks like a wonderful afternoon. And great to see what Donna is up to! Boy, do mother and daughter ever look alike!

  2. Tandi

    Thank you Karen. I love this post, and the photos really cover these two beautiful women. What vivid smiles. Wonderful way to share time with friends. I can’t wait to try those recipes!!

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