I have a friend who used to work in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin years ago. She told me once about about the letters they got around this time of year, usually from tourists who had bought a loaf of barmbrack in the store to take back home with them. The people writing the letters were concerned that they’d found a ring in their bread, with one person saying they’d had it appraised and another one joking that they were relieved they hadn’t also found the finger that came with the ring. Most people sent the ring back.
They obviously didn’t know just what they’d bought. Barmbrack (or báirín breac in Irish, from báirín, a loaf, and breac, speckled, due to the raisins in it) is a traditional Halloween treat in Ireland, falling somewhere between bread and cake. What makes it special is the ring and coin that are usually baked into the bread, turning it into a bit of a fortune-telling game: whoever gets the coin will be rich and whoever gets the ring will be married within the year. Who knows what chances for love those well-meaning tourists sent back?
Irish Tea Barmbrack
adapted from Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen
Makes 1 loaf
Darina Allen says that even though this is a very rich bread, it’s traditionally served sliced and buttered in Ireland. If you can’t get sultanas and/or raisins, just use all raisins instead, or you could substitute dried cranberries too. Darina’s recipe calls for glacé cherries, but you could use chopped dates instead or leave them out altogether. I’ve been cheeky and have swapped out some of the tea for whiskey in this recipe, but if you don’t want to use alcohol in your barmbrack, just use 300 ml (1 1/4 cups) tea. For a twist, use Earl Grey or even chai tea instead of regular black tea. If you want to add in some charms, like a ring or coins, just be sure to wrap them well in parchment paper first before adding them to the batter!
100 g (3/4 cup) raisins
100 g (3/4 cup) sultanas
100 g (3/4 cup) currants
50 g (1/4 cup) glacé cherries, halved or quartered, or stoned, chopped dates
50 g (1/4 cup) candied peel or the zest of 1 lemon
250 ml (1 cup) hot, strong black tea
50 ml (1/4 cup) whiskey or Cointreau
1 egg, lightly beaten
225 g (1 3/4 cups) self-raising flour
200 g (1 1/4 cup) light brown sugar
1 level teaspoon mixed spice
Put the raisins, sultanas, currants, cherries and candied peel in a large bowl, one that’s big enough to accommodate all the ingredients later on. Pour over the tea and whiskey or Cointreau and allow the fruit to soak for at least 30 minutes or even overnight.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a 450 g (1 lb) loaf tin with parchment paper or a loaf tin liner.
Add in the beaten egg, flour, sugar and mixed spice to the fruit and tea mixture. Stir well until everything is just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours or until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack before slicing. This keeps very well in an airtight tin.