We Knead To Bake #32 :Barmbrack or Speckled Bread (Báirín Breac) – Irish Halloween Fruit Bread/ Cake
Barmbrack is a bread made with dried fruit that has been soaked in hot tea. It is traditionally served at Halloween in Ireland, but also makes for an excellent tea time treat, especially when tasted and generously slathered with butter! The Irish also call it Báirín Breac or “Speckled Bread”. Speckled because of the rains in the bread and that name comes from the Irish words “báirín” for loaf and “breac” for speckled.
The origin of Halloween goes back to the Celtic festival of "Samhain" which is derived from Old Irish and supposedly roughly translates to "Summer's End." The Barmbrack is very much a part of a traditional Irish Halloween custom that involved baking various objects or “fortunes” into the fruit bread. When the bread was cut and served, if you found one of the objects in your portion then that would tell your fortune.
So if you got a thimble in your portion of Barmbrack then spinsterhood was predicted, whereas a button (or a pea) meant you would remain a bachelor. Don’t ask me what would happen if a man got the thimble and a woman got a button. I guess either way, it pretty much that you were doomed to a future without a spouse! If you got a bean or a piece of rag then you could look forward to a life of misfortune or poverty, but a silver coin prophesied wealth. A ring meant the promise of marriage while a stick meant a quarrelsome or unhappy marriage.
The good old days of Irish Halloween seem a far cry from the modern day version of it that we know and must have been rather gloomy. Apart from the thought of souls and scary spirits wandering around, even the Barmbrack predictions weren’t particularly cheerful except for the person that got the silver coin! Luckily, the modern day bakers invariably limit themselves to baking only a ring into Barmbracks.
There are yeasted versions of this recipe as well those that use baking powder to leaven it. This is the yeasted version.
Barmbrack or Speckled Bread – Irish Halloween Fruit Bread/ Cake.
- Put the dried fruit into a bowl. Cover them with the hot tea and leave overnight or for at least 3 to 4 hours so they plump up. Once they have plumped up, drain the liquid and reserve it to be used later. Also set the fruit aside. Make sure the fruit has drained well, otherwise it will make the dough wet when you add it later.
- You may knead by machine or by hand. I chose to use my processor. Put the flour, instant yeast, sugar, spices, and salt into a large mixing bowl or bowl of your machine and whisk (or run machine) to mix them together. Add the beaten egg and the butter and pulse a couple of times.
- *Now put the reserved soaking liquid into a 1 cup measure and top up with enough warm milk to make 1 cup. The milk should be warm enough to make a warm “milk + tea” mixture to make the yeast proof and the dough to rise.
- Add this “milk + tea” mixture to the dry ingredients in the bowl and knead into a just-sticky-to-touch and elastic dough, adding a little more flour if necessary. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured counter and flatten it out. Sprinkle the drained fruit over this and fold in half and fold once again. Then gently knead the dough so the fruit is evenly dispersed within the dough.
- Shape into a ball and place the dough in an oiled bowl. Turn it to coat it well with oil and then let it rise, covered, until it has doubled in volume (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours).
- Gently knead the risen dough and divide it into 2 equal portions. Shape each into a round and place on greased baking trays or into a loaf and place in greased 5” x 8" loaf tins as you prefer. Place the ring and trinkets (if you’re using them) into the bread while shaping them.
- Let the shaped breads rise for another 45 minutes to an hour, covered, until they have puffed up. Bake at 180C (350F) for about 35 to 45 minutes until the breads are golden brown and done. Cover the breads with foil if they’re browning too quickly.
- About 5 minutes before finally taking the breads out of the oven, brush the tops of them with the sugar glaze (if using) and return to the oven for 3 to 4 minutes for a sticky and shiny finish. Cool the breads on a wire rack. Cut into thick slices and serve with butter, as they are.
This recipe makes 2 medium loaves or rounds.