The Daily: 11 March 2023

This post is number 500 for this blog, making it somewhere around 500,000 words. Quite a lot of effort…

Penny Loaf Day

March 11th is Penny Loaf Day, though it is also traditional to set the observance to the Sunday closest to 11 March. This is an obscure holiday that I’d like to revive. Because first of all, it involves bread (so, duh, of course!), and second it celebrates generosity that has endured for nearly four centuries.

In 1644 during the First English Civil War, Hercules Clay of Newark, Nottingham, had a dream that his house would burn down. This was not so unusual a dream. Fire happened frequently in England and there was also a war on; it was understandable that fire nerves might plague his dreams on occasion. But the very next night, he had the same dream again. This was a bit more troublesome, but again he brushed it off and went about his business. However, the next night he again dreamt that his house would be engulfed in flames — because things always happen in three’s. The final dream came on the 11th of March. Deciding that he’d best heed the omens, he and his family left the house to shelter in the country. Meanwhile, the next night fighting made its way to Newark, and his house was in fact burnt to the ground, the collateral damage of an errant bomb from besieging military forces.

Grateful to heaven for what he decided was a life-saving warning, he established a fund of £100 to pay his good fortune forward. Every year on 11 March, the fund distributed penny loaves of bread as well as clothing and shoes to those in need. This was not entirely free; the recipients were obliged to hear a sermon first. At its height in the early 1800s, the dole handed out nearly 3,000 penny loaves each year.

The charity fund has been depleted since then, but the sermon is still read in Newark on the Sunday closest to 11 March. There are, however, efforts to revive the old ceremony. In recent years a few penny loaves have been handed out on March 11th — but these days without the obligatory sermon.  

A penny loaf was a smallish loaf or bun that cost one penny when there were 240 pence to a pound. Recipes I’ve seen for “Irish Penny Loaves” and the like tend to remind me of the ubiquitous hot cross buns of spring. And indeed, the nursery rhyme “Hot Cross Buns” tells us that they cost “one a penny, two a penny / hot cross buns”. Presumably the cheaper bun is the day-old stale bread price. 

I’ve done Hot Cross Buns, so today I’m going to do a slightly more expensive bread — soda bread. This workaday recipe varies from a basic salted barley loaf that serves well as hardtack all the way to a saffron and fruit confection that could be called cake if it weren’t so very satisfying. I’ve chosen something from the middle of the soda bread spectrum — a currant and cardamom brown bread.

Irish Brown Bread with Currants & Cardamom


4 1/2 cups flour (any combination: today was 2 1/2 cups wheat, 2 cups bread flour)
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cardamom
2 Tbs white wine vinegar
2 cups yogurt
3/4 cup dried currants


To begin with, my normal recipe calls for an egg. I didn’t have an egg. So I scratched that.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment and sprinkle it with coarse corn meal.

Most traditional recipes call for buttermilk. I don’t normally have buttermilk. But I do have an acidic dairy product in the fridge all the time — yogurt. It is sufficiently acidic to use on its own, but sometimes I like the extra rise of adding a bit of vinegar, as you might do for making buttermilk pancakes, sans buttermilk. I use 1 tablespoon good vinegar of some variety to complement the recipe per 1 cup of yogurt. You can also just use whole milk with vinegar, probably at the same ratio.

In any case, add the vinegar to the yogurt, stirring until combined. Let it sit for at least five minutes.

Using your hands, combine the flour(s), salt, baking soda and ground cardamom. Be sure to break up any soda lumps.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the yogurt.

Mix this with your hands until combined. Then add the currants.

Knead the dough until it is smooth and somewhat elastic. Depending on your flour mix (and your climate), you may need to add a bit of water. Whole wheat flour tends to soak up liquids, so I added about 3 tablespoons water to this dough.

Form the dough into a ball with a flattened bottom and place it in the prepared baking sheet.

Soda bread dough

Let the dough sit for a few minutes while you wash up the mess.

Using a sharp knife, cut a deep X into the top. (This is to let the mischief out of the dough, according to old wives… who probably know what they’re talking about.)

Place the baking sheet in a 450°F oven on the center rack. Bake for 15 minutes.

Turn the heat to down 400°F. I find it helpful to turn the loaf around at this point; cooks more evenly and helps to reduce the oven temperature quickly. Bake for an additional 30 minutes until it is golden brown and makes a hollow thump when rapped on the bottom of the loaf.

If the bread is not done at the end of 30 minutes, lightly cover the top with foil to prevent burning.

Soda bread for dinner

You can eat this bread as soon as it is cool enough to handle. It keeps for a few days in an airtight container. (Or beeswax wrap — which is my new favorite thing for keeping breads fresh!)

It is best served warm with a bit of butter or creme fraiche. I also like fruit preserves on soda bread, but with the currants I think this recipe is sweet enough as it is.

And on sweet… In the US, most of the soda bread for sale is full of sugar and then often it is coated in a thick glaze, almost like it’s been candied. I suppose that’s fine now and then, but I don’t like sugar that much. And even if I did, I think the sugar would overwhelm the salty, nutty taste of Irish bread. So this is how I make it. For the record, whenever I find a recipe from Ireland (or really anywhere but here) there is never sugar added to the dough, though I have seen a few with a citrus glaze that probably makes it taste like Christmas. So feel free to experiment!

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

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