Goldenbridge: Hallowe’en Bairín breac

When I was a teenager in Goldenbridge I distinctly remember getting Bairín Breac/Barmbrack during Hallowe’en. Doubtless that was due to ‘All Souls’ and ‘All Saints’ Days that followed each other in a row on the religious calendar. On feast days, in general in the institution there was always that little speciality regarding food. It was such a glorious treat, as children were normally each evening greeted at 6:00pm supper-time to twelve slices of white thinly processed bread and bitter black cocoa that lay in the centre of the six-seater tables. Two slices per person. No extra bread at all. Sometimes the bread was soggy or tasted mouldy, as it was placed in an aluminium container in a small damp pantry, that was mice infested. The ring was the most exciting part of all. Everyone hoped that they’d be the lucky ones to find the illustrious rings. The rings were wrapped in white cooking paper and indented inside each breac. There were also a handful monkey nuts to be had from what I recall. Children wished every day was Hallowe’en, as it meant their bellies were not rumbling during the course of the night. Even now I’ve a penchant for bracks.
The ancient Celtic festival Samhain was celebrated on November 1 — the first day of winter. In Christian times the celebrations were transferred to the night before — Hallowe’en, which is still one of the liveliest festivals of the year. Children who had visitors, if I quite rightly remember had plastic face masks, and they went around scaring other children.

The word barm comes from an old English word, beorma, meaning yeasty fermented liquor. Brack comes from the Irish word brac, meaning speckled – which it is, with dried fruit and candied peel. Hallowe’en has always been associated with fortune telling and divination, so various objects are wrapped up and hidden in the cake mixture — a wedding ring, a coin, a pea or a thimble (signifying spinsterhood). After dark children dress up, often as witches or ghosts in hats and masks and black shawls, light turnip lanterns in the windows and go from house to house collecting fruits and nuts. Even a medallion of the Virgin Mary was included while baking the bread.

INGREDIENTS

    • 4 cups white flour
    • 1/2 level teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
    • 1/4 level teaspoon nutmeg
    • pinch of salt
    • 1/2 stick butter
    • 3/4 oz yeast (or 2 teaspoons dried yeast)
    • scant 1/2 cup caster (fine) sugar
    • 1 1/4 cups tepid milk
    • 1 egg, beaten
    • 1 cup sultanas
    • 1/2 cup currants
    • 1/4 cup mixed chopped candied peel Charms
    • 1 pea
    • 1 ring
    • 1 silver coin
    • 1 short piece of matchstick, each wrapped in greaseproof paper Glaze
    • 1-1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
    • 2-3 tablespoons boiling water

DIRECTIONS

1. Sieve the flour, spices and salt into a bowl, then rub in the butter.

2. Cream the yeast with 1 teaspoon of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the tepid milk; it should soon froth slightly.

3. Pour the remaining tepid milk and the egg into the yeast mixture and combine with the dry ingredients and the sugar. Beat well with a wooden spoon or knead with your hand in the bowl until the batter is stiff but elastic.

4. Fold in the dried fruit and chopped peel, cover the bowl with a damp cloth or pure clingfilm and leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size. Knead again for another 2-3 minutes and divide between two greased 1 lb loaf tins.

5. Add the charms at this stage, making sure they are well distributed. Cover again and leave to rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes to 1 hour or until the dough comes up to the top of the tin. Bake in a preheated 350° oven for about 1 hour. Test with a skewer before taking out of the oven.

6. Glaze the top with the sugar dissolved in the boiling water. Turn out to cool on a wire tray and when cold cut in thick slices and butter generously. Barmbrack keeps well, but even when it’s stale it is very good toasted and buttered.

Recipe Source: Festive Food of Ireland, The by Darina Allen, Kyle Cathie Limited, 1992.

Reference to barmbracks is made in Dubliners by James Joyce. The following example can be found in the first paragraph of Joyce’s short story Clay:

The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed round at tea.
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