There’s some confusion about the correct name for this fruit-filled tea bread. The undisputed part of the name, “brack,” comes from the Irish breac, meaning “speckled” (the speckles being the sultanas and currants). Barm is the yeasty foam that rises to the top of beer and other alcoholic beverages as they ferment, and it was once used to leaven bread, becoming a latter-day Irish synonym for baker’s yeast. Because this tea bread is typically leavened with yeast instead of baking soda, “barm brack” would seem to be a reasonable description of it. But it’s also possible that a better name for it is barn brack, “barn” perhaps deriving from the Irish bair in (or bairgin), an obscure word for “loaf.” Whatever it’s called, this bread is traditionally eaten at Halloween, when a token is baked into it: The eater may find a ring (predicting impending marriage), a button or thimble (portents of bachelor-or spinsterhood, respectively), or a coin (presaging wealth). In earlier, less sensitive times, items might also have included a rag or a dried pea (for poverty) or a matchstick (for an abusive spouse). Today, the tokens are usually wrapped in waxed paper or cloth, to lessen the possibility that they will be accidentally ingested, thereby provoking a different prognosis altogether.
Total Timeunder 4 hours
Recipe Courseside dish, starch
Dietary Considerationhalal, kosher, peanut free, soy free, vegetarian
Mealbreakfast, brunch, tea
Taste and Texturechewy, fruity, sweet
Type of Dishbread, yeast bread
- Two ¼-oz/7-g packets active dry yeast
- 6 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 4½ cups/450 g flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 cup/150 g sultanas (golden raisins)
- 1 cup/150 g dried currants
- ½ cup/40 g candied orange peel or lemon peel (or a combination), finely chopped
Put the yeast and 1 Tbsp of the sugar into a medium bowl and gradually stir in 2 cups of warm water (about 100°F/40°C). Set aside for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture becomes frothy.
Meanwhile, rub the butter into the flour in a large bowl until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Stir in 4 Tbsp of the sugar, the ginger, nutmeg, salt, sultanas, currants, and candied peel. Make a well in the center, pour in the yeast mixture, and stir the liquid into the flour in a spiral motion, from the middle outward, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead, dusting with more flour as needed, until elastic and just slightly sticky, about 5 minutes. Put the dough into a large greased bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and set aside in a warm place for about 1 hour, until dough has doubled in size.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface again and knead lightly for a minute or two, then shape it into a large round or oval and put it on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C (Gas Mark 8).
Bake the bread for 15 minutes. Tent with foil, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F/175°C (Gas Mark 4) and bake about 40 minutes more, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Dissolve the remaining 1 Tbsp of sugar in 1 Tbsp of hot water and brush over the loaf. Return the loaf to oven for 5 to 7 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
2009 Colman Andrews