Barm Brack is an Irish bread eaten at Halloween. Fortune-telling charms such as a ring or coin are baked in the bread.
Barm Brack is a fruit bread made with yeast and spices eaten in Ireland around Halloween. Barm is an old word for yeast and brack comes from breac, the Irish word for spotted., Warm autumn spices make it just the thing with a hot cup of tea on a raw October afternoon. Toasted for breakfast, it’s a richer version of cinnamon raisin toast.
The bread’s popularity at Halloween is due to fortune-telling charms baked in the bread — a ring means marriage, a coin wealth, cloth poverty. There is great excitement when someone finds the ring in their slice of brack. Fortune-telling games were an essential part of Irish Halloween traditions because of the old pagan belief that the veil between this life and the next became thin at this time of the year. The holiday has its roots in a Celtic harvest celebration that marked the end of the year and honored the dead. The Catholic Church turned the three day festival into a Christian holiday, All Saints’ or Hallows’ Day on November 1 and All Soul’s Day on November 2. October 31 thus became All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween. Irish and Scots immigrants brought their holiday to America. The more ghoulish American version of the holiday has returned to Europe in recent years. For more about the origins of Halloween, read Edyth Preet’s story in Irish America magazine.
This recipe is adapted from Rachel Allen’s “Irish Family Food”. I used homemade pumpkin pie spice for a brighter flavor, but you can certainly substitute the store bought spice mix. My version also includes another American fall flavor — dried cranberries.
Not that it’s ever “safe” to bake tokens in bread, but If you plan to include a charm, be sure it is first well washed in hot soapy water and wrapped in a piece of parchment paper or cheesecloth so it’s easily identified and not accidentally swallowed.
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1 2/3 cups (225 g) white bread flour
2 tbsp. pumpkin pie spice (see note for homemade spice mix)
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. (25 g) unsalted butter
1 (1/4 oz. or 7 g) package of fast-acting yeast
1/4 cup (50 g) superfine (caster) sugar
2/3 cup (150 ml) whole milk, lukewarm
1 egg beaten
1 1/2 cups (200 g) mixed dried fruit such as golden raisins (sultanas), raisins, cranberries, and currants.
1 oz. (25 g) chopped mixed orange and lemon peel (I had to buy them separately at my supermarket and mix them)
Grease the sides and bottom of a 9 by 5 inch (23 by 13 cm) loaf pan.
Sift the flour, spice and salt into a large bowl. Add the butter, yeast and sugar. Beat together by hand or in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment.
Warm the milk until lukewarm, then add to the flour mixture with the beaten egg. Mix until the dough comes together. Knead in the stand mixer using the dough hook attachment for 5 minutes or tip out onto a floured surface and knead by hand for 8 minutes. Add the dried fruit and mixed peel and knead for another 2 minutes. If using charms, add them here.
Put the dough into the prepared tin, cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 degrees Celsius).
Remove the kitchen towel, place loaf in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until deep golden brown. Insert a toothpick into the center of the loaf, if it comes out clean, the bread is baked through. If not, bake for another few minutes. When it is ready, loosen the sides of the loaf from the tin using a spatula. Tip it out and let cool on a wire rack.
Slice the loaf and serve it fresh or toasted with plenty of butter.
Note: To make homemade pumpkin pie spice, mix together 3 tbsp. ground cinnamon, 2 tbsp. ground ginger, 2 tsps. freshly ground nutmeg, 1 1/2 tsp. ground allspice and 1 1/2 tsp. ground cloves. You will only need 2 tbsp. for the brack, save the rest in an airtight container for your Thanksgiving pumpkin pies.