When it comes to sweet treats and fun traditions, you really can’t beat Halloween. Although there are some staple goodies when it comes to the season – caramel apples, s’mores, and candy, to name a few – sometimes the most interesting rituals are ones that point back to much older origins. One such custom is the making of barmbrack, a traditional Irish tea bread long associated with Halloween.
Although the connection between barmbrack and Halloween in Ireland has been lost to recorded history, the confection may trace parts of its origin to soul cakes, small scone-like cakes that were baked on the Christian festival of All Soul’s Eve (also known as All Hallows Eve, the immediate predecessor to our modern Halloween), and given to beggars in exchange for prayers for the departed. But many years before that, soul cakes were thought to have been used in the rites of Samhain, a Celtic pagan festival marking the end of the summer harvest and the coming days of winter. These cakes may have been used for divination purposes, or as offerings for wandering spirits on a night when the veil between worlds was thin.
Quite some backstory for a simple tea-bread! These days, barmbrack is most often baked in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora as a tasty treat for the Halloween season. But lest anyone forget its ancient origins, there is still a touch of divination to the barmbrack tradition – often, a few small tokens are baked into the loaf, which are said to foretell the future of those who find them. Most commonly included are a ring (for love or marriage), a coin (for wealth), and a pea or bean (for prosperity).
Want to try making barmbrack yourself? Here’s one of our favorite recipes, courtesy of Donal Skehan (including a few notes of our own). Don’t forget to serve up with a cup of your favorite warming tea. Happy Halloween!
You will need:
13 oz assorted dried fruit (We like a mix of chopped dried apricot, raisins, and figs)
2 oz whiskey (optional)
9 oz cold black tea (such as Irish Breakfast)
Butter, for greasing
8 oz all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
4½ oz light brown sugar
1/2 tsp mixed spices (Hint: a pumpkin or apple pie spice blend would work well here!)
1 large egg
A ring, to place inside (optional, but fun!)
- Place the mixed fruit in a bowl and pour over with tea and whiskey. Allow to soak up the liquid overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C). Grease and line a 2 lb loaf pan.
- Combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, and spices in a mixing bowl. Make a well and break in the egg, then use a wooden spoon to mix it with the dry ingredients. Add a little bit of the liquid from the mixed fruit and mix it through to form a wet dough (Note: you may not need all the liquid to get there, so add in small amounts).
- Stir in the fruit until everything is thoroughly combined. Add the ring (and any other charms you like) and stir through. Spoon the dough into the lined loaf tin, place on the middle rack in the oven, and bake for 1 hour.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before removing from the loaf tin and placing on wire rack. Your brack will be excellent fresh from the oven, but even better over time as its flavors deepen.
Written and Baked by: Jen Coate