Grandma’s Irish Cake

My Irish grandmother, Annie Allen, arrived at Ellis Island in 1909, a twenty-one-year-old with two little boys—my father (4) and his little brother Sam (2), in tow. I can’t imagine. She joined her husband Bill, who’d come ahead two years earlier to work and save money for her passage, Bill had never met his son Sam. Grandma set up house, had two more kids, and lived a long life in her own home, cooking, baking, and tending her garden until she passed in her late 80’s. As a young lad—her youngest grandchild—I relished her “Irish Cake” as she called it, sitting with her for tea—a ritual she kept every afternoon around four whether I was there or not. During my time, Grandma’s Irish Cake was a Christmastime deal only. During the rest of the year, we had store-bought Irish Cake wannabe or raisin bread, either from the grocery or home-made.

Irish Cake is variety of soda bread, loved by many. It’s easy and quick to make, but don’t skip on the key ingredients—real good butter, cream of tartar, and especially buttermilk—or you won’t be getting the authentic experience. We never captured her exact recipe, which I’m sure came straight from County Down, where Grandma probably learned it from her mother, Mary Anne McKee. This recipe has been thoroughly tested and perfected in Dad’s kitchen and approved for annual consumption by the family.

UPDATE, November 2023

It’s getting to be Christmastime, so I made a loaf. Much to my surprise (why??), this loaf turned out a lot more cakey than bready. I investigated. Grandma, of course, was right after all in calling this delight “Irish Cake” and not Irish Soda Bread. I have made amendments to the recipe title and created a separate recipe for Irish Soda Bread. Slainte.

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Grandma’s Irish Cake

A quick, butter-milky holiday soda bread with currants — for teatime or anytime.
Course Snacks, Tea Time
Cuisine Irish
Keyword holidays, quick bread, soda bread
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Resting Time 1 hour
Total Time 2 hours
Servings 12 slices
Calories 272kcal
Author dad


  • loaf pan Use a non-stick pan, but prep it anyway as suggested.
  • digital thermometer Makes all the difference in the outcome.
  • digital scale Always important for baking.


  • 1/2 cup butter, melted Best quality from grass-fed cows—if possible—just like in Grandma's day back in Ireland.
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour 361 grams on your digital scale. You have one, right?
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder Use fresh if possible. Not more than 6 months old.
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar Not sure what it does, but it's essential, I'm sure!
  • 1 pinch salt Just a pinch to enhance flavor. If you use unsalted butter, try 2 pinches.
  • 5 tbsp sugar I only use Demerara sugar now. Look it up! Substitute light brown sugar or white sugar, or half-brown-half white in a pinch.
  • 1 egg large and fresh
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk Full-fat, if you can get it.
  • 1 1/2 cups currants Or raisins, or mixed candied fruit. But currants are best.


  • Pre-heat oven to 375°.
  • Use a stick of cold butter to "paint" the inside of your favorite loaf pan. I use a paper towel to spread the butter around evenly. If your pan is prone to sticking, even with the butter, spoon a tablespoon of flour into the pan and tilting and tapping, distribute flour evenly. Discard the excess flour.
  • In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter in the microwave, then let it cool for at least 10 minutes, but don't let it solidify.
  • In a separate, large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients (flour, salt, soda, salt, sugar). Mix in currants. Work at getting everything evenly distributed. I really love currants, but raisins or golden raisins, or for a special treat, candied fruit, make for a holiday version.
  • Add the egg to the melted butter and mix well. Add buttermilk and mix well.
  • Add wet into the dry until evenly moistened throughout. Do not mix beyond this. Repeat, do not overmix. Be tender to get tender!
  • Place batter in buttered loaf pan. Smooth out a bit with the back of a spoon.
  • Cut a line down the length of the loaf with a sharp knife. (Lets the fairies out.)
  • Ovens vary, don't they? In my pre-heated oven, I bake at 375° for 25 minutes on the top shelf. Then, I turn the pan around 180° and continue baking for another 25 minutes. You are looking for an internal temperature of 170° measured with an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf, or until a probe comes out with hardly anything sticking to it. Bake another 5-10 minutes if necessary. Do not overbake. The loaf will continue baking after it comes out of the oven. One more thing: If it seems that the loaf is getting too brown, place a piece of aluminum foil loosely over the loaf during the last 10 minutes of baking.
  • Remove from oven and let the loaf pan sit on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Then, carefully invert the pan, give a little tap, and the loaf should drop out with no sticking. Place the loaf on a wire rack and let it cool completely, at least an hour. Don't be tempted to sample the bread before it cools down.
  • Cut a slice and enjoy with butter. You'll have a loaf that is slightly crusty on the outside, but with a tender inside. Just like grandma, by the way.


I have updated this recipe in November 2023. Before that, I had suggested a lower baking temperature, but had trouble getting the loaf done just as it should. I consulted other recipes and adjusted the temp. Most importantly, I paid close attention to my digital thermometer and only let the internal emp get to 170°. This was the key to a perfect loaf. 
Once the bread is at room temperature, you can wrap it in foil or plastic. Don’t wrap it while warm because it will release moisture that will soften the crustiness. I urge you to consume the loaf within a few days or cut it in half and freeze what you don’t need now. Or just eat it all and make another loaf!


Calories: 272kcal | Carbohydrates: 44g | Protein: 5g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 5g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.5g | Monounsaturated Fat: 2g | Trans Fat: 0.3g | Cholesterol: 24mg | Sodium: 192mg | Potassium: 243mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 18g | Vitamin A: 299IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 65mg | Iron: 2mg

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