As if autumn wasn’t good enough with its abundance of harvest items, sunny days that don’t actually require SPF and mellow fruitfulness, it also has Halloween. This is the perfect excuse to get dressed up and indulge in some seasonal treats that taste of my Irish childhood. One of those is the gorgeous spiced yeasted fruit bread known as barmbrack.
We loved it so much in our house, we ate it all year round, usually with lashings of butter and often a smidgeon of cheese, but it is traditionally associated with Halloween in Ireland according to those who know. It was studded with items such as coins and a ring to foretell your future luck. So as the days grow shorter, it seemed like the perfect time to try my hand at making it.
It was surprisingly hard to find a recipe. Barmbrack isn’t as well known over here as bara brith and a lot of the ones I across were really just fruit soda, lacking the yeast. I used a combination of these two recipes, adapting to create the closest memory of childhood tastes I could.
Start the night before and soak 350g of mixed dried fruit in tea. I wanted something to remind me of bonfires and being able to see my breath on dark nights and used lapsang souchong with a splash of rum, but you could use regular tea or even just water. Don’t skip the soaking stage. It really helps give the bread moistness.
Next day you’ll need:
350g plain flour
60g butter (chilled)
50g caster sugar
1 tsp ground mixed spice or I used a mix of nutmeg, ginger, mace and cinnamon
7g fast-action Dried Yeast or 15g if using fresh
½ tsp salt
150ml milk, lukewarm
1 large egg, beaten
Sift the flour and rub the butter into as you would for scones to create fine breadcrumbs. Then stir in the sugar, yeast and spices. Beat the milk and egg together and add to the dry ingredients, bringing together to form a dough. Add a bit more flour if it seems too sticky to knead.
Flour your surface well and begin the knead the dough on it. Keep this up for 8-10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Start adding the soaked fruit to the dough. This is slightly fiddly as about half the fruit you add each time will fly off the counter if you don’t go slowly and carefully. Fold the dough over itself each time to minimise that. I also added some leftover chopped cobnuts or you could use hazelnuts. Stop kneading as soon as the fruit is combined, you don’t want to make it mushy.
Pop the dough back in the bowl, cover with a teatowel or clingfilm and allow the dough to rise for an hour or so in a warm place. It should double in size in this time. Flour a baking tray and place on it. Barmbrack should be cooked without a tin for a freehand feel. Cook in a preheated oven at 200C or Gas Mark 6 for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden on top. Don’t let the fruit burn or it’ll be bitter.
When the barmbrack comes out of the oven, anoint it liberally with a wash of butter and cinnamon to give it a most appealing glossy top. Barmbrack is a joy in its own right, but it’s also a vehicle for butter. Don’t skip this simple but effective stage. Serve slices of still warm bread with a good slathering of butter, slices of seriously good cheddar (try Greens of Glastonbury at Brixton Farmers’ Market) and a good strong mug of tea.
Despite my loaf not rising as much I had hoped and an uncooked seam at the bottom of my loaf (I think my milk wasn’t warm enough to get the yeast going*) the barmbrack tasted brilliant. Properly warm with spices, it was very moist with tonnes of lovely smoky sticky fruit and a teeny bit of crunch from the cobnuts. I wanted more than one piece, but it’s surprisingly filling. Perfect for taking on a long walk in the remaining sun or just being lazy and toasting it in front of a fire. Apparently it also makes excellent bread and butter pudding when it goes stale. As long as you butter it with gusto, I don’t need tell you any more!
*if you have similar problems, it’s probably my recipe and I apologise.