Barmbrack – Irish Halloween Bread – Blue Monday
The landmark Campanile, Trinity College Dublin. The college, established in 1592, is home to scholars and men of letters some famous, some forgotten. Among the blessed are Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Trinity College has a deservedly proud heritage. While it’s not well known, the Irish, including some matriculating at Trinity, revel in the celebration of Somhain, a Halloween festival that includes a parade and boisterous bonhomie to mark the end of summer and All Saint’s Eve. All holidays have special trappings and this one is no exception. The zealous celebrate with costumes and special food. Some of the foods associated with the Somhain are colcannon, a potato dish, and barmbrack, a confection sweeter than a bread but less rich than cake.
Both Van Morrison and James Joyce mention barmbrack, a yeasted sweet bread that’s traditionally served on Halloween in Ireland. The Irish sometimes called it Báirín (top) Breac (dirty or speckled). Years ago the yeast to raise the bread dough was skimmed from the top of a vat of fermenting beer, the Bairin. The dried fruit was the Breac. It is the custom in Ireland to place trinkets into the bread dough. The charms determine if luck in the coming year will be good or bad. If a pea is found, the finder will not marry. If a coin is found, good fortune and wealth can be anticipated. A small stick indicates a bad or violent marriage, a piece of cloth poverty and a ring an impending marriage. Some cakes contain all these objects and fate is determined by what’s in the slice of cake you receive. For the superstitious it’s not unlike a crap shoot. Like many women, I seed my bread in such a way that only good luck is bestowed on any who are at my table. The bread is not difficult to make and I’m a bit surprised that the tradition has faded in so many Irish-American families. Soda bread is still made for St.Patrick’s day but there are precious few families that still make barmbrack for Halloween. I have a pointer that will make your bread exceptional. In Ireland, the raisins and currants are steeped in tea for 24 hours before baking. At Chez Mary, they bathe in Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. I have the happiest raisins in the Pacific Northwest. This is a lovely sweet bread. I hope you’ll try it. Here’s the recipe.
Irish Barmbrack…from the kitchen of One Perfect Bite
1 cup milk
4-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, divided use
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup currants
3/4 cup seedless raisins
1/2 cup candied lemon peel
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
1) Scald the milk or heat it on HIGH power for 1 minute in a microwave oven. Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes to soften.
2) In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2 cups sifted flour, sugar, salt and allspice. Whisk to combine. Add yeast, milk and butter. Beat with paddle attachment for 2 minutes at medium speed. Cover and let sit in a warm spot for 30 minutes. When it has doubled in size, add 1 cup of reserved flour and beat with electric mixer on low speed until flour is well blended, about 1 minute. Repeat with the last cup of flour.
3) Turn onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead for 8 minutes, gradually working in currants, raisins and lemon peel. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover and allow to rise until double in bulk, about 90 minutes. Punch dough down. If you wish to add trinkets to dough, add them now. Shape the dough into a round loaf and set it on a greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise again until double in bulk, about 90 minutes.
4) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake loaf for 45 to 50 minutes. Combine sugar with water and brush over loaf. Cook for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from oven. Let sit for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool. Yield: 1 loaf.
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