October is a beautiful time in Ireland. The weather is crisp and cool, leaves are turning and falling, fires are seriously stoked in the evenings, and the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg and mixed spice fills the air. It is all so wonderful. As the month comes to an end, there is a growing excitement for Halloween night to arrive. In our Irish home the children have already selected their costumes and started to make plans.
Our youngest will be out trick-or-treating in the neighbourhood with a group of friends, while our eldest, who feels she is too old to dress up and go begging for candy, will be at home with her cohorts celebrating with a real old-fashioned Irish Halloween party.
In keeping with the customs of long ago, there will be a bonfire, fireworks, bobbing for apples, bowls of nuts and fruits, Colcannon (a dish of mashed potatoes, kale and onions), and a Bram Brack, a fruit filled bread traditionally eaten on and around Halloween.
The Bram Brack will have small items, wrapped in greaseproof paper (parchment paper), baked inside as a means for fortune-telling. A ring will symbolise love or marriage, a coin for wealth, a soup-pea for poverty, and a thimble for a life of spinsterhood or bachelorhood.
Interestingly, the recipe I’m using comes from Young Housewife’s Cookery Book by Brigid Russell. Published in 1928, the book was written for housewives “untrained in cookery skills”…in other words…the self-taught home-chef like me!
In preparation for this blog post and the party, I baked a loaf of Barm Brack over the weekend. It turned out really well, though I felt the recipe lacked complexity. I will add cinnamon, nutmeg and mixed spice when making it again. If you’re not a fan of those autumn spices, you could, of course, leave them out.
Barm Brack keeps nicely for about three days, after which it tends to get a little stale. When this happens, don’t toss it in the bin. Instead, toast it and serve it buttered with a hot cup of tea.
From our Irish home to yours, I wish you and your little ghosts and goblins a Happy Halloween.
Makes One Loaf
1/4 lb butter
1/4 lb currants
1/4 lb castor sugar
1/2 lb sultanas
2oz peel (candied)
1. Heat the flour. (I placed mine in a large mixing bowl and popped it into a warm oven for about 15 minutes.)
2. Break the butter into the flour and add the sugar. (I cut the butter into small pieces and worked it into the flour with my hands until the flour resembled coarse bread crumbs.)
3. Put the yeast into the flour, and, with beaten egg and sufficient tepid milk, make the whole into a loose dough. (I sprinkled the yeast over the sugared flour, whisked the egg with a fork in a small bowl with one cup of room temperature milk. I added more milk straight from the carton into the bowl as needed.)
4. Knead for 8 to 10 minutes; put to rise in a warm place for 2 hours. (The dough was very stiff, but somewhat elastic…vague, I know, but that’s the only way to describe it.)
5. Add the prepared fruit and the finely-chopped peel and knead again for 8 minutes. (I did not add peel to my loaf, but I did add an extra 2 ounces of raisins. Here is where I would suggest adding 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice.)
6. Place in a greased cake-tin, and again put to rise in a warm place for about 20 minutes. (I lightly buttered a loaf tin and I left the Barm Brack to rise for 30 minutes.)
7. Bake in a hot oven for about 1 hour. (I baked mine in an oven preheated to 180°C/350°F. When the top started to burn, I covered it with a piece of greaseproof paper to protect.)
8. When done, the loaf should be glazed by brushing over with a solution made from equal parts of sugar and boiling water. (I omitted this last step.)
A recipe for Irish Tea Brack, a similar but easier version of Barm Brac, may be found here.
An article from the Archeological Institute of America on the history of Halloween’s Celtic Roots may be read here.
A history lesson of Ireland’s Halloween customs may be found here.
Haunted houses in Ireland here.
Irish Halloween traditions here.