Penny Melville-Brown making food in her kitchen

Baking Bread with Holman Prizewinner Penny Melville-Brown

On Monday, March 8, people from all over the world in different time zones came together virtually to share one delicious experience—baking soda bread with blind chef and 2017 Holman Prize winner Penny Melville-Brown.

Being a woman of Irish heritage, I love soda bread and have baked it on numerous occasions, trying several different recipes throughout the years. Penny’s recipe stood out to me as it called for an ingredient I had never before seen in a soda bread recipe— yogurt. I was immediately intrigued and knew I had to take this opportunity to learn from the famed Blind Baker herself.  So, I set my alarm clock for 2:30 am Monday morning and joined in on the fun.

With very sleepy eyes and visions of warm, freshly baked bread dancing in my mind, I clicked on the Zoom link and was connected with fellow blind and low vision bakers (both by hobby and by trade) as Penny guided us through the process of measuring out ingredients, mixing and kneading the dough until it was at the right texture and consistency, and popping it into the oven. While our loaves baked, participants from the United Kingdom, Australia, Zimbabwe, and the United States listened as Penny shared her experiences as a blind chef, winning the Holman Prize and the world of opportunities that opened up for her, and of course, her own personal history with soda bread and how she came up with this recipe.

Many traditional Irish soda bread recipes call for buttermilk, an ingredient that is hard to come by in the United Kingdom. You can make your own buttermilk by adding vinegar or lemon juice to whole milk, but that results in a very fatty product. Since Penny makes her own yogurt, she had the brilliant idea of taking the liquid from the top of the settled yogurt and using that as a buttermilk substitute.

The recipe was a success! However, most people don’t have access to homemade yogurt, so she decided to tweak the recipe once more, this time using the yogurt itself. The thick, creaminess of plain yogurt has all the flavor of buttermilk but provides a richness and moisture to the bread that I had never tasted before. As a sort of soda bread connoisseur, this recipe has instantly become my favorite. (And not just because it came from a fellow blind baker!)

Joining Penny and baking alongside people who are blind or have low vision in kitchens all over the world was a fantastic experience. The past year has been a doozy, and the entire globe has been affected. It isn’t often that people on every continent share the same experience and life circumstances. No matter where you are from, two things are true for all—we are all capable of doing great things, and the love for food is universal.

If after reading this you’re thinking, “Gee, I wish I’d participated in Baking with Penny,” you’re in luck! You can watch the recorded baking session with Penny here. For more information about Penny Melville-Brown and what new delicious recipes she is whipping up or for information on future virtual baking sessions, you can follow her YouTube channel, Baking Blind.

If you’d like to try Penny’s Irish Soda Bread recipe it’s below, with both U.S. and metric measurements.

Penny’s Irish Soda Bread

  • 1¾ cup or 250 grams of self-rising flour, or 1¾ cup (250 grams) of all-purpose flour and 2 teaspoons baking powder or baking soda
  • ½ cup or 200 grams plain natural yogurt
  • 1 level teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 400° Fahrenheit, Gas 6, or 200° Celsius,
  2. Line a baking tray with parchment paper and spray with a little oil.
  3. Mix all the ingredients together to form a dough ball.
  4. Place the dough on the tray and cut a cross on the top.
  5. Bake for 25 minutes then turn the bread over and bake for a further 5 minutes.
  6. Enjoy!