Ireland is a country full of rapturous baking traditions and flavors. At no other time is its sweet culinary soul more on display than during Easter, a time of family gathering and delicious breaking of bread. With our 2020 Authentic Ireland Issue being one of our most beloved issues of all time, we decided to catch-up with past Irish contributors to revisit the country we miss so much. We spoke with three baking icons of Ireland: Darina Allen, cofounder of Ballymaloe Cookery School; Shane Smith, a pastry chef and food writer; and Gemma Stafford, the baking entrepreneur behind the YouTube channel and blog Bigger Bolder Baking. Each shares an intimate glimpse of Ireland in springtime, from the mint and rhubarb growing in their gardens to the ornate chocolates you can find in Irish bakeries. In addition to this bit of scenic romance, the three bakers also offer authentic Irish Easter recipes so we can enjoy a taste of Ireland from our home kitchens and dream of when we can travel there again.
Darina Allen is an award-winning cookbook author and cofounder of the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland. Darina has continued to school the next generation of bakers and cooks during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering online and virtual classes for the first time. Get Darina’s Simnel Cake recipe here!
Describe the ideal Irish Easter feast.
Darina Allen: Our best loved Easter cake is Simnel, a gorgeous rich fruit cake with a soft marzipan layer in the center and toasted marzipan on the top and around the sides. Hot cross buns were traditionally served on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but now, people can enjoy them during the entire Lenten period. A roast leg of Spring lamb served with a simple mint sauce is our favorite Easter meal. Usually the sauce is made with the first of the new season’s mint freshly snipped from the herb garden. If we are really lucky, we will have the first baby carrots from the kitchen garden to round off the meal. Easter is a moveable feast but usually we can pick the first pale pink spears of rhubarb from under the terracotta forcing pots. We’ll use it to make an Easter rhubarb pie or crumble to serve alongside our celebration meal.
What does Ireland in spring look like to you?
DA: We’re planting seeds during spring, and during that time, there are lots of pale yellow primroses growing around the edge of the garden as we plant. We often make a primrose cake for St. Patrick’s Day. We ice it with a lemon water icing, and then decorate it with crystallized primroses and wood sorrel leaves. It ends up representing the Irish colors—green, white, and gold—which sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s a delightful cake and super delish.
Why is the simnel cake a classic Easter baked good in Ireland?
DA: It’s a perfect cake to make ahead, start at least a week before Easter, maybe spread it out over a few days. Soak the fruit in whiskey one day, make and bake the cake next day and allow it to rest for a day or two, apply the marzipan topping, decorate with 11 apostles and toast. It will just become better and better as the days go on. It’s quite rich, so you can share it with family and friends.
Gemma Stafford is the sensational Irish professional baker behind the website and YouTube channel Bigger Bolder Baking. She released her first cookbook, Bigger Bolder Baking: A Fearless Approach to Baking Anytime, Anywhere (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), in 2019, introducing a whole new generation of bakers to her accessible recipes. Get Gemma’s recipe for Chocolate Scones here!
Tell us about some of your memories of what your family would bake and prepare for an Irish Easter meal.
Gemma Stafford: Easter is a big deal in Ireland, being a religious holiday. Every year, the meal would consist of lamb served with roast vegetables, gravy, and all the trimmings. Dessert in our house was usually something chocolate. I remember my mum serving chocolate cake decorated with little candy chocolate eggs on top. As kids, we thought this was just the best thing ever.
What do you think of when you think of Ireland in spring?
GS: Springtime is a season of rebirth and new life, so lamb, chicks, and eggs are what I picture when I think of springtime. When it comes to our sweets, however, the Irish are all about their chocolate at Easter time! Mainly chocolate Easter eggs wrapped in foil and in a pretty box. We are among some of the largest consumers of chocolate in Europe. In Ireland, we have amazing chocolatiers, who are putting Ireland on the map for chocolate production.
What classic baked goods would you recommend a traveling baker try during an Easter sojourn to Ireland?
GS: There is really one iconic baked good that appears every Easter in bakeries all around Ireland and that is hot cross buns. My mum would always buy hot cross buns around Easter. A rich, sweet yeasted dough studded with dried fruit and mixed peel and marked with a cross on top made from pastry or icing. Traditionally eaten on the Friday before Easter, known as Good Friday, they symbolize the end of Lent. It’s an Irish classic.
Shane Smith’s love of culinary arts started at a young age, and he was inspired by his two grandmothers and his mother, who were all avid home bakers. Over the years, Shane has received numerous awards in recognition for his work, including Best Bakery Manager in Ireland. He is a regular contributor to the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, Easy Food Magazine, and other national publications. Get Shane’s recipe for Whiskey Marmalade Hot Cross Bun Pudding here!
What were some Easter baking traditions of your childhood?
Shane Smith: With my mum, we always made fruitcakes. You have your simnel cake, the traditional fruitcake with marzipan, and then, of course, tea bracks [fruit cakes infused with tea]. We were soaking the fruit the night before, either in tea or whiskey, and then baking the fruitcake the next day. And then there was hot cross buns. My mum never made hot cross buns; she always bought them. By the time I was 14, I was into baking, so I started to bake hot cross buns. My dad lives on hot cross buns. For him, hot cross buns can be enjoyed in December—any time of the year is hot cross bun time for my dad.
What can you expect to find in Irish bakeries during the spring?
SS: You can expect simnel cakes, spiced tea bracks, and, of course, hot cross buns. But in the newer, modern bakeries, you can find everything chocolate. Whether it’s a decadent chocolate fudge cake or an ornate, stunning chocolate Easter egg, you’ll see some of the most amazing chocolate work. I’ve also seen the classic Battenberg cake making a spring comeback, with some Easter twists—such as carrot cake crossed with chocolate.
What do you think of when you think of Ireland during Easter?
SS: It’s never overly warm over here during spring, so it’s all about comfort food. I liken Easter in Ireland to Thanksgiving in the United States. Easter is always a family get-together, and the food is always celebrating tradition and comfort. So, there’s chocolate, apple crumbles, and carrot cake bakes— anything that would remind you of what desserts you would crave as a child. When I think of Easter, I think of reminiscing.