December 2021

Winifred Horan's soda bread

Winifred Horan soda bread

In the Kitchen with Winifred Horan

Imagine if you will the sounds of the fiddle and the beat of the bodhran, the laughing faces illuminated by the glow of firelight, and the smell of warm bread swirling in the air with a hint of pine – while outside the wind whines and Christmas Day knocks at the door.

If there’s anyone I’ve ever met who personifies the whole experience of a Christmas home party, it’s Winifred Horan. She is the close friend greeting you with unbridled excitement after years apart, even if you are meeting her for the first time. She is the fire in the hearth and she is undoubtedly the music. Until recently however, I didn’t realize that she is also the sweet bread cooking next door.

It was for that very reason I met up with Winifred at a friend’s home in Maine. She joined me to share her mother’s sweet Irish soda bread recipe. We threw together the cake, as easy to make as it was delicious, and while it baked, she filled me in on life around the Horan household growing up, including holidays, food, and family.

For those who might not know, Winifred is a virtuoso fiddler, teacher, and award winning Irish step dancer, as well as an original member of the traditional Irish band, Solas. Her most recent endeavor is a radio show on Bluegrass Country described as a “new cutting edge Celtic music program [that] will bring the beautiful, soulful and technical components of Celtic music from around the world to your ears. Win’s passion for and knowledge of Celtic music is a major asset as she will dig deep into the culture and present classic cuts from the Irish tradition and also introduce listeners to newly composed, fresh and astounding new music from talented young musicians and bands from across the Celtic world.” She is also currently a guest lecturer for the Irish studies program at the National University in Galway.

The day we met to discuss cooking together, our conversation flowed freely, and I was swept away into the world of Rockaway Beach, New York and rural Ireland. As a first generation daughter of Irish immigrants, Winifred has a notable perspective on the marriage of Irish traditions with other food.

“... Because we grew up in an immigrant community of Irish and many Italian families, [my mother] learned how to make Italian dishes like meatballs, chicken and eggplant Parmesan. Something she would only ever have learned from her neighbors in the melting pot that is New York City and its surrounding boroughs”.

In a way, the kitchen was a place where Winifred learned about the larger world she would later explore as one of its most popular Irish musicians. And her mother’s love for cooking became the roots that still feed Winifred’s longing for home.

Her Christmas memories sound like a children’s book. Her father, a master carpenter and boat builder, made the children wooden toys, while the smells of her favorite meal filled every corner of the home. Her mother’s turkey, ham, homemade applesauce, mashed turnips, parsnips, and sweet potatoes always bring Win back to the pleasure of a lingering family meal. The day, filled with toys and plentiful food, was often capped with a drive around the neighborhood to see all the Christmas lights.

Of course, Ireland has had a strong pull on her during her life, since both of her parents are Irish immigrants. Along with devoting her professional life to Irish music, she lived in the Emerald Isle as an adult for a couple of years and travels there often. And when she speaks of her mother’s life in Ireland, her expressive dark eyes light up even more.

“My mom grew up in a little town called Johnstown, outside of Arklow, Co. Wicklow in Ireland. She learned all of her cooking and recipes from my grandmother, who basically operated a small organic farm”.

Her mother’s childhood speaks of another time, but is recreated for Win in the kitchen and through her family stories. She paints a delightful picture of a childhood in rural Ireland.

“They had a cow, a goat, chickens and a fresh vegetable garden. Everything they cooked was from their garden or animals. They would ride a horse and cart into town once a week to buy flour, oats and visit their local butcher for the freshest cuts of meat. My grandmother made her own butter, bread, honey, jams and taught it all to my mom, who in turn passed the recipes on to me and my siblings”, she says.

For centuries, women have played an important role in handing down cooking and music traditions on the home front. In the Horan household, women certainly led the charge for music and recipes. As Win says so eloquently, “Most folk tradition is passed on orally and by real experience. Whether it be recipes, story telling, music and songs, mothers teach their children by example. This is how I was raised. My grandmother baked, sang, played the melodeon, and danced. My mother baked, played, sang, and danced. I bake, play, sing, and dance. This is how tradition stays alive. Constantly changing, constantly evolving... a thread to keep us all connected”.

Winifred Horan baking

Mom’s Sweet Irish Soda Bread

One of Win’s fondest food memories was dessert in the form of sweet Irish soda bread loaded with butter, jam, or honey. Her grandmother, in rural Ireland, made this cake in a cast iron pot over the open-hearth fire in the living room. She covered the pot and then lay coals on top, making, as Win calls it, a sort of convection oven. The cake is still served at all major family and community events from funerals to weddings to holiday meals.

After cooking, we slathered on fresh creamy Irish butter and as Winifred says, drank “an endless pot of tea”. The cake is a perfect representation of the Irish food aesthetic: simple, rich, warming, and delicious, with a slightly sweet taste and moist texture.

3 cups of flour
2 eggs
2/3 cup of sugar
1 ½ cups of buttermilk
1 stick of melted butter
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of raisins or currants

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a nine-inch spring form pan. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix by hand. Pour into the spring form pan. To make the cake more rustic, mix until just combined — do not over mix.

Cooking time is 50-55 minutes, depending on your oven. Check to make sure it is golden brown on top and fully cooked in the middle before removing. Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes. Lightly dust with powdered sugar and serve slices with butter, honey, or jam.

Her radio show, The Celtic Cut with Winifred Horan, streams every Saturday at 7pm EST.

Bluegrass Country Radio website: Live streaming link:

Libby Page is the founder of, a website devoted to Irish food in all its forms, featuring spotlights on food artisans, a glossary of Irish culinary terms, and new recipes. If you have recipes, eatery suggestions, stories to share, or need ideas for food places to visit in Ireland, please contact her: