When the boss gently hints that you should do something, it’s prudent to pay attention. Fortunately, the gentle hint I recently received was regarding sharing a recipe for Irish food, so I’m all in. I reviewed the usual suspects: soda bread, colcannon, Irish stew, Guinness brownies. They all sounded good, but what caught my attention was a recipe for something called barmbrack, which is a word that’s so much fun to say, I figured the barmbrack itself must be just as fun to eat.
Barmbrack is a raisin-studded yeasted sweet bread, but since I do not have the luck of the Irish when it comes to yeasted breads, I took my inspiration from a recipe at bakeitwithlove.com made with self-rising flour. In addition to raisins, it called for dried cherries and dried orange peel, which sounded splendid — or iontach, if you’d prefer a snappy Gaelic adjective.
I should point out that “barmbrack” isn’t entirely accurate, as I learned while reading the yeasted barmbrack recipe at irishamericanmom.com. Barm is the froth from the top of fermenting beer, mixed with a bit of flour and added, like a sourdough starter, to some Irish breads. Brack (or breac) is another charming Irish word that means “speckled.” In Gaelic, this bread is called báirín breac, báirín meaning “bread” or “loaf.” Sometimes barmbrack is also called (and I like this best of all) “freckle bread.” However, there isn’t any barm in this recipe. Instead, it calls for tea-soaked fruit, so technically, it’s a tea brack. But barmbrack sounds like it’s something that was made in a stone cottage on a green hillside with a picket fence and nasturtiums and possibly fairies in the garden, whereas tea brack sounds like a tub full of dishwater. So barmbrack it is.
Barmbrack or tea brack is often made at Halloween (which has its origins in the Celtic harvest celebration Samhain). Little trinkets were baked into the bread and said to foretell the fortunes of those who found them. A ring meant marriage, a coin meant wealth and a thimble meant spinsterhood. On New Year’s Eve, bits of barmbrack are thrown from the back doors of Irish homes to ward off poverty. My barmbrack doesn’t have anything hidden in it except a tablespoon of whiskey, which is lucky enough for me.
I started by brewing a very strong cup of tea (two teabags to 1 cup of water). I didn’t have dried cherries, black currants or apricots, as the recipe called for, but I did have raisins, dried apples, dried figs and candied dried orange slices. I chopped everything up into little bits and poured the tea over the fruit. I added a further teaspoon of dried orange zest and tucked a cinnamon stick in the mix. I was feeling frisky, so I topped it off with a tablespoon of whiskey for good measure. I sealed everything in a glass container and put it in the fridge overnight.
The next day, I put the fruit in a bowl along with two eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon cloves. The fruit had absorbed all the tea so there wasn’t much liquid, but the fruit was very plump and juicy. I didn’t have enough nutmeg to equal what the recipe called for, so I substituted ½ teaspoon cardamom.
Adding the cup of brown sugar turned out to be very labor intensive because I’d let the sugar dry out and it was rock hard. I hacked away with a knife for about 10 minutes until I had more or less a cup and thought my upper arm muscles might spontaneously combust from the exertion. I briefly considered that I’d never make it as a lumberjack, swinging an ax all day.
I stirred everything together vigorously then added 2 cups of self-rising flour, mixing until the dough was just moist and I couldn’t see any white patches of flour. Barmbrack can be baked in a cast-iron skillet or a loaf pan. I opted for the skillet because it seemed homier somehow. (I tried to think like the imaginary Irish woman in my fictional Irish setting. Wouldn’t she use an iron skillet? Or would she just get the fairies to bake it for her?)
I turned the oven on to 350 degrees. I generously buttered the skillet and spread the thick dough over the bottom of the pan, then gave the top of the loaf a buttermilk wash to make the crust nice and golden. The recipe gave quite a long baking time for the loaf, an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and 30 minutes. I figured the baking time in a skillet would be shorter, so I set the time for one hour.
Well, one hour was long enough to make it a bit more than nice and golden. I should have followed my nose because it smelled done at about 40 or 45 minutes. At 53 minutes, the aroma coming from the oven contained definite burnt-toast notes with undertones of scorched raisin. I took the bread out and sighed in dismay at the deep mahogany crust, like someone had applied a dark stain over a beautiful oak floor. Ah well. It wasn’t black, at least.
I let it cool on a wire rack and cut myself a wedge, then slathered it with butter. It was surprisingly moist, even after all that baking. The spices were fragrant and the brown sugar gave it a molasses edge. It had a satisfyingly dense crumb and the darkly caramelized crust was actually pretty good. I will not reveal how many total slices I’ve had now but it is more than five and less than 200. As for the cleanup, I’ll just ask the fairies to do it.
1 cup of brewed strong black tea
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups of raisins, dried cherries, sultanas, figs, apples, black currants, apricots, prunes and/or orange peel
1 tablespoon orange zest (fresh or dried)
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon whiskey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom or nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cloves
2 cups self-rising flour
Buttermilk wash (optional)
Soak the fruit and cinnamon stick in tea overnight, then discard the cinnamon stick. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan or a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Combine the tea and fruit with the orange zest, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla, whiskey and spices. Mix thoroughly then add flour to make a stiff dough, mixing just until moist. For a loaf, bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, checking occasionally for doneness. If baking in a skillet, bake for 40 to 45 minutes. It’s done when the top is dark brown and a knife in the center comes out clean. Cool before slicing. Serve with lots of butter.