Irish Halloween Bread! Barmbrack

We just passed the first anniversary of our trip to Ireland (see Every Sign a Song Cue). The whole country seemed to be preparing for Halloween, which gave us a chance to observe some local customs, such as sampling Barmbrack, a type of Irish sweet bread most often associated with Halloween.


Aly’s barmbrack, Irish Halloween bread (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

Barmbrack, also known as Báirín Breac, is kind of a Halloween raisin bread, if you will. It reminds us of our family’s traditional Christmas treat, stollen, but is a bit more on the spicy side rather than the sweet side of sweet breads.

Traditionally, it was a fortune telling loaf, with meaningful items baked inside to indicate the finder’s future for the year: a pea meant they would not wed that year, a scrap of cloth might foreshadow bad fortune or poverty, a religious medal might mean entering the priesthood or a nunnery, a coin meant good fortune, a ring indicated marriage. Today, a small ring can still be found in most commercial loafs of barmbrack.

I bought a couple loaves in an Irish grocery store, and our group enjoyed them with breakfast and tea. This year, Aly turned to one of our favorite cookbooks, From Celtic Hearths (see Feeling Sconish). Of course, it included a barmbrack recipe!

We had to adapt it, which primarily meant changing the amount of caraway seeds. The book must have mistakenly set the amount at 1/2 cup. We looked at the other spice amounts, and adjusted it to a comparable 1/2 tsp, which seemed to work well.

Here’s what we ended up with:

2½ tsp active dry yeast, or 1 package, prepared per instructions
3 tsp salt
4-5 cups unbleached flour
½ cup butter
¾ cup sugar
3 eggs
½ tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp allspice
½ tsp mace
½ cups raisins or currants
¼ cup chopped dried apricots
minced zest of 1 lemon

Prepare yeast. Mix salt with flour, make a well in the center, and pour in yeast mixture. Stir. Melt butter, add to dough with sugar, then beat in eggs one at a time.

Add caraway seeds and spices. Knead in extra flour if necessary to make a good dough; continue kneading until smooth and elastic.

Make the dough into a round ball and place in a greased bowl. Cover and allow to rise in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in bulk (about an hour). Punch down, turn out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead in the fruit.

Grease a cast iron or clay casserole or baking pan with 2-quart capacity (we use our cast iron Dutch oven, which worked perfectly). Shape the dough and allow to rise a second time, covered, for about half an hour, or until doubled in bulk. Preheat oven to 375°. Bake 45 minutes – 1 hour, or until the bread sounds hollow when thumped. If using a baking thermometer, inner temperature should reach 190-200°F. Turn out on rack to cool.


Barmbrack makes a nice complement to a restorative cup of tea (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

It’s delicious! Intensive research continues, but I find that it pairs particularly nicely with our fireside coffee (see A Cup of Coffee That Brings Tears to My Eyes)!

No doubt, we’ll have to make more before Halloween night actually arrives.


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