Barm Brack is an Irish bread with dried fruit in it.
Traditionally it was risen with yeast, but for some time now many recipes have called for baking powder or self-rising flour.
Barm Brack is baked in a round shape, rather than a loaf shape.
Some recipes have you soak the fruit overnight in tea first. The upside to this is that your dried fruit will be softer and (they say) more tasty; the downside is that the fruit can more easily break up during kneading and turn from plump-looking raisins into questionable-looking fly specks.
A baking-powder version is made from flour, sugar, egg, baking powder, allspice (or mixed spice), tea, and mixed fruit such as candied fruit peel, raisins or currants.
You mix all the wet ingredients first, including the fruit whether soaked or not, then add the dry ingredients, fold to mix, then turn into a cake pan. The bread needs a long baking time, about 80 minutes at 350 F / 175 C.
To serve, it’s cut into slices, which people often butter.
Stale slices of Barm Brack come alive when toasted and buttered.
Store Barm Brack for up to 1 week in a sealed container.
Literature & Lore
Barm Brack was traditionally baked at Hallowe’en, when you’d put charms in it. Ideally, each child would get one charm in her or his slice.
Charms (and their meanings) might include:
- bean: poverty (or bachelorhood)
- cloth (small piece of): poverty, as in rag
- coin: wealth
- matchstick: the husband will beat the wife (or you’ll be a fighter)
- pea: wealth (or spinsterhood)
- ring: marriage
- thimble: spinsterhood
The charms are wrapped first in greaseproof paper (very similar to the waxed paper used by North Americans.)
If you buy your Barm Brack from the store, one of the charms at least will always be a “gold” ring.
Food writers usually focus on the Hallowe’en aspect of Barm Brack, but it’s actually made year round. In fact, for a Hallowe’en treat now, it’s just as likely to be replaced by take-away from the local Indian restaurant. Children weren’t, of course, usually all that interested in the actual bread — it’s the prizes inside that would catch their interest.
From the Irish term, “bairín breac”, with “bairín” meaning “loaf” and “breac” meaning “speckled”.
Some sources plump for “barm” having come from the Middle and Old English word berme / beorma, meaning “yeasty foam” (basically, yeast.) Based on this, they see two different types of brack: barm brack, made with yeast, and tea brack, made without yeast (i.e. with baking powder). They might be thinking that yeast is more traditional to this loaf — which it might have been, had anyone back then been able to afford the fruit or tea in the first place. It is far more likely that this is a loaf whose ingredients — raisins and tea — would only have begun to be accessible to average Irish people long after baking powder came on the scene. In any event, there is now no difference: aside from the charms at Hallowe’en, the same barm brack is made year old — or more precisely, purchased year round.