Barmbrack – such a strange word to those of us who didn’t grow up in Ireland. Originating from the Gaelic language, bairín, is a reference to the yeast of fermented bear and breac, notes the speckled appearance of currants and golden raisins. This sweet bread is leavened with yeast, enriched with milk and butter, and infused with cinnamon and nutmeg. Tokens are wrapped in parchment, then folded into the bread dough to be discovered later when the bread is sliced. My Irish husband’s favorite Halloween memory is of gathering at the table with his family to slice into the barmbrack. Each token symbolizes a different prediction for the future. Find a ring in your slice and you’ll be married soon. The matchstick predicts an unhappy marriage. A pea foretells poverty, a coin, wealth. It’s great fun to see who gets what, laughing at the good and the bad (which is very Irish).
The bread is often baked in a loaf pan, but my husband prefers a round loaf (the way his mother made it). Recipes call for candied citrus peel, which I left out because it was never included in his mother’s barmbrack. When asked what makes a good and proper barmbrack, the husband replies, “a sweet bread with plenty of raisins and lots of air pockets.” The yeast in this recipe creates a light and airy dough, and time to rise in a warm kitchen develops flavor. This enriched bread keeps well, lasting about a week (if it’s not eaten before then). Serve barmbrack in thick slices slathered with butter. If it does go stale on you, Darina Allen suggests the slices make a wonderful Bread and Butter Pudding.
When the husband was growing up in Ireland, kids didn’t go trick-or-treating and they didn’t dress up in costumes for Halloween. He says that’s an American thing (read commercialized). Hearing his stories of simple family traditions like bobbing for apples and sharing the barmbrack on Halloween warms my heart. I remember the Halloweens of my childhood: Mom sewing the bones on my skeleton costume and creating my sister’s Raggedy Ann ensemble with red yarn. There was trick-or-treating in the neighborhood and parties with piñatas. The world seems much bigger now. I miss those simple times. And I wonder, will there be any trick-or-treaters at my door this year? I’ve optimistically picked up a bag of candy and will leave the light on just in case. In the meantime, I’ll be at the table with the husband nibbling on barmbrack with a cuppa tea. Happy Halloween!
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recipe from Forgotten Skills of Cooking, by Darina Allen, makes two loaves
- 1 pound white bread flour
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast + 1 teaspoon sugar + 1 teaspoon tepid milk
- 1/3 cup superfine sugar
- 1 cup tepid milk
- 1 organic egg, whisked
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 1/2 cup currants
- 2 oz. Candied peel