Ah barmbrack, what memories you bring! As a child in Ireland, I always knew Halloween was near (or that there had been a really good sale on barmbrack), when slices of buttered barmbrack appeared alongside your cup of tea when visiting family. We normally shorten it to brack, and in Irish it’s known as bairín breac.
Along with the brack, apples, little mandarin oranges, nuts and raisins would appear for snacking on. I fondly remember watching telly at my maternal grandmother’s house (my beloved Nan) with the fire roaring, grabbing handfuls of nuts and raisins from a big burlap sack of them. My Nan made the best brack. People are in two camps when it comes to brack, there is no in-between. It’s one of the great unsung dividers of the world, in the same category as Marmite and liquorice.
You either liked a more bread-like drier brack, sliced toasted and slathered with butter, or a moist more cake-like version – delicious with and without butter. My Nan had nine children and knew what to buy and what to make, and always made her own brack, with coins wrapped in baking paper in it for her children, and later her grandchildren. We would carefully eye each slice, looking for the telltale paper sticking out, when the time came to choose one. Hers was beautifully rich and moist (I belong to the more cake-like brack tribe in case you couldn’t tell) but it definitely became a bit of a punishment as we feigned hunger in order to shove down slice after slice in search of coins.
My paternal grandmother sometimes made brack, with coins it, or brought in a pre-made package from the little shop attached to their house. Her taste in brack tended towards the more bread-like version, and it was always a bit of brack roulette at her house. Would you get the tastier-but-still-dry brack with coins? Or would you get the shop-bought version which was really dry and had a useless ring hidden in it which you would invariably bite down on hard by accident?
Apparently, traditionally several items are placed in brack. A stick, a pea, a piece of cloth, a ring, and a coin. I say apparently because Wikipedia informed me so. I have never seen or had such a brack in my lifetime. The stick is supposed to symbolize a bad marriage (ominous!) over the coming year, the pea that you won’t get married, the cloth that you’ll be poor, the ring that you’ll get married (finally! I was such an old maid at 8 years of age…), and the coin that you’ll be rolling in dollar bills.
Apart from the food side of Halloween, there was of course EVERYTHING ELSE. The costumes had to be scary, none of this superhero stuff. We had our mother driven up the wall as we changed our mind every day of October on what we wanted to dress up as. Then there was carving the pumpkin (well, watching a responsible adult carve the pumpkin), ghost stories, scary movies, decorating the house, bonfires….Good times. Not to mention the possibility that someone in the neighborhood had gone to Northern Ireland and come back with FIREWORKS!
(In case you didn’t know,fireworks apart from sparklers and tame poppers, are illegal in the Republic of Ireland)
Nowadays many places commit the UNFORGIVABLE crime of putting up Christmas decorations BEFORE Halloween. No! No I say! Christmas cannot be mentioned until after Halloween!
Brack was also enjoyed after Halloween,tightly wrapped in tin foil and kept in empty biscuit tins. My brack is vegan, as I really want my kids to partake in a bit of tradition, and my son is allergic to eggs and milk. Instead of eggs, I use aquafaba. Aquafaba is basically the gunk in canned or bottled chickpeas that you normally rinse off and throw away, just in case you didn’t know. Make it and enjoy it toasted with lashings of margarine!
- 200 g raisins
- 175 g sultanas
- 75 g whiskey, can substitute with dark rum
- 350 ml chai, can substitute with black tea
- 225 g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 125 g brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons aquafaba
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 100 ml soya milk
- Make the chai quite strong. As soon as it's ready, pour it over the raisins and sultanas, add the whisky, and mix. Leave for at least four hours, preferably overnight.
- Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.
- Drain sultanas and raisins and mix into the dry ingredients.
- Add in the aquafaba and soya milk, mix and turned into a greased or lined loaf pan.
- Bake at 180C or 160C fan assisted or 1 hour. Check to see if it's browning too much in the last twenty minutes and cover with foil if necessary.
- Remove and let cool completely before removing from the loaf tin. Slice and serve with margarine.
- Wrap any leftovers tightly in foil or cling film and keep in the fridge. Will keep for one week refrigerated.