Barmbrack

This tasty Irish tea cake is traditionally eaten at Halloween and is a perfect comfort food for cold autumnal evenings!

Fruit soaking time: 6+ hours (overnight)Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 60 minutesServes: 10
Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients

  • 350g/12½oz/2⅓ cups of dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, citrus peel etc.)
  • 250ml/2½dl/just under ½ pint/1 cup of strong hot black tea
  • 50ml/½dl/⅒ pint/⅕ cup of whiskey
  • A little margarine, for greasing
  • 225g/8oz/just under 2 cups of plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon of nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 110g/4oz/½ cup of brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon zest
  • A trinket like a ring or coin (optional)

Make it vegan: use vegan margarine for greasing instead of butter and use a flax egg (made by combining a tablespoon of ground flaxseed with 3 tablespoons of water) or three tablespoons of aquafaba instead of the egg.

Special Equipment

  • Two large mixing bowls
  • A medium sized bread tin or round cake tin
  • Baking paper

Method

  1. Place the dried fruit in a large mixing bowl and pour over the tea and whiskey. Cover the bowl with a teatowel and leave the fruit to soak overnight.
  2. Preheat the oven to 170°C/340°F/Gas Mark 3. Prepare a bread or cake tin by greasing a large sheet of baking paper and using it to line the tin.
  3. Sieve the flour, baking powder and spices into a large mixing bowl before mixing in the sugar with a wooden spoon.
  4. Pour the egg and the liquid from the dried fruit mixture into the large mixing bowl and stir them into the flour mixture. Finally, add the lemon zest, dried fruit and trinket (if using) to the bowl and stir everything together.
  5. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and pop it in the oven. Bake the Barmbrack for about an hour, turning at least once during cooking time. It’s ready when it’s golden brown and a fork inserted into the Barmbrack comes out clean. Remove it from the oven and allow it to cool before serving.
  6. Bain taitneamh as do bhéile!/Bon appetit!

Tips

  • For best results, leave the dried fruit to soak overnight (or for a minimum of six hours) before adding them to the Barmbrack mixture.
  • Eat the finished Barmbrack with butter and a cup of hot tea. If desired, you can toast it first.

Background

Pronunciation: /ˈbɑːmbrak/ (bahm-brak)

Home: Ireland

Relatives: Bara Brith (Wales), Malt loaf (United Kingdom), Tea loaf (England)

History

The Irish forerunner to Halloween is Samhain (pronounced sau-inn), a Gaelic festival which has been celebrated since ancient times.

Like Halloween, Samhain has always been held around October 31st. Halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, this date marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. And like Halloween, Samhain was a time when the doorways between our world and the otherworld were said to open, so spirits were able to freely cross over from the other side.

These spirits included the Aos Sí (faeries), who took the opportunity to cause mischief and damage crops, as well as the souls of the dead, who were said to return to visit their homes and families.

The Aos Sí were placated with sacrifices and offerings of food and drink, while the souls of the dead were welcomed home and offered a place at the dinner table. People would also dress in costumes and go door to door, seeking food and hospitality, in an effort to impersonate (or attempt to scare away) spirits, and would light bonfires to hold back the darkness of winter.

Bonfire at Samhain
Roger Griffith, Beltane Bonfire on Calton Hill, 2008
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beltane_Bonfire_on_Calton_Hill.JPG [accessed 30/09/2020]

Over the centuries, as Christianity gained traction in Ireland, Samhain and All Hallows Eve (the date which precedes the feast of All Hallows’ Day on the liturgical calendar) merged together to make Halloween, which retains many of Samhain’s traditional festivities.

Divination was an integral part of Samhain. Druids would attempt to use the visiting spirits to see the future, and revelers would dance around the Samhain bonfires before returning the next morning to examine the leftover ashes and stones, using what they found to predict the future. Apple bobbing was also practiced: when a person caught an apple they would peel it and use the shape of the peel to guess the name of their future husband or wife.

Another common divination ritual involved baking a loaf of Barmbrack, or Bairín Breac (‘spotted bread.’) Certain charms (often a pea, stick, cloth, coin and ring) were hidden in the Barmbrack dough. Slices of the finished loaf were then handed out and if the recipients found a charm in theirs, it indicated what the future had in store for them: if they found a coin it meant they would become rich, and if they found a ring it meant they would soon marry.

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