Uptown Soda Bread Co.
Chicago, IL; 773-989-8765;
The Dish: Cranberry Walnut Soda Bread
The Maker: Cynthia Cieckiewicz
Cost: $2.99 (individual), $6.99 (large round)
At the corner of Vesey Street and North End Avenue in Battery Park is a one-half acre plot of land unlike any other in New York City: The Irish Hunger Memorial. The land is flushed with vegetation, soil, and stones native to Ireland, with a rebuilt 19th century cottage that was at one time the home of Mary Slack Collins before she moved to America. The same Mary Collins was the grandmother of Uptown Soda Bread Co.'s Cynthia Cieckiewicz, whose Chicago based bread company exists solely because of the soda bread recipe her grandmother brought with her from Ireland.
The mother of two young kids, Cynthia worked for years in IT for a pharmaceutical company—work she enjoyed, but that kept her away from her family more than she hoped for. She was soon to find the best of both worlds when around this time last year she began visualizing a soda bread company. Armed with her grandmother's recipe for the bread, Cynthia spent the next several months testing her own recipes, using her grandmother's as the base, and developing what would eventually become a business midway through 2011. Her breads are now for sale online and in markets around Chicago like Urban Orchard and Goddess and the Grocer, and in late September she even caught the attention of Time Out's David Tamarkin. Not too shabby for an IT consultant.
And her bread? It's damn good, which I can say from firsthand experience. My wife brought home a small loaf of the Cheddar Chive soda bread when we had friends over for chili one night. Flecks of cheddar were literally in every bite. Often chunks. These savory takes on soda bread are just one side of her business, whereas the Original Raisin (her grandmother's recipe), Chocolate Chip, and Cranberry Walnut are on the sweet side. The two takes on the often-overlooked bread make up a simple business structure, which is a reflection of the breads themselves as well. While it's unique to find soda bread studded with bacon and cheddar (which she also sells), Cynthia has been careful to not stretch the ingredients in her different breads too far. In her Cranberry Walnut bread, the only ingredients that differ from her grandmother's Original Raisin are the chopped specs of walnuts and dried cranberries, and yet every single bite is moist and jumps with sweet and nutty flavor as though the dough had been infused.
It was over a freshly baked round loaf of her Cranberry Walnut bread that Cynthia and I talked. The bread, which she classifies as sweet, is made with a base of dry and wet ingredients, which she mixes by hand. The dry ingredients are made up of flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; the wet made up of eggs, sour cream, and buttermilk. She mixes each separately and then slowly brings them together by hand, working the mixture until it feels right to the touch. The process takes just fifteen minutes before the dough is ready for the oven. Soda bread doesn't call for yeast (imagine resting dough in that Irish climate, which is why the Irish baked soda bread), so there's no need for the dough to rise. Once in the oven (350°F for the sweet loaves, 450°F for twenty and then reduced to 400°F for the savory), a batch will bake for about one hour. She bakes in the convection ovens at Kitchen Chicago, where she rents space in the middle of the night a couple days each week to do her prep and baking. Once out of the oven, the bread cools for another hour and then is wrapped and packaged before getting shuttled to her van for morning wholesale deliveries, made by her, around the city.
In a city full of small food shops and businesses that continue to push the envelope (and often revert to the ways of yesterday), Cynthia has found a niche that hasn't been tapped. Couple that with a product that is unlike the typical chalky, thick Irish soda breads most of us have had—her product is moist, tasty, and made with a heck of a lot of care—and one only hopes Cynthia continues to find more and more mouths to feed. She's developing a challah type loaf of soda bread for 2012, thinking it'd be perfect for restaurants to serve at brunch, specifically with French Toast in mind. I'd love to see her take it one step further and sell to some of these specialty shops, the idea to use her bread for sandwiches. I'm imagining a local butcher's house made corned beef on Cynthia's rosemary soda bread. That quarter of my heart that's Irish is jumping for joy.