It is while sifting through my recipe files that I miss my mother-in-law, Carmel, the most. I have inherited her stash of handwritten notes and recipes along with a tattered book or two, that are now part of the mix of newspaper clippings, pages cut from magazines, and online print outs that fill two folders in my pantry.

The Hallowe’en after she went into full-time care, I combed through those files over and over, a casual search through pumpkin pancake and chocolate sauce recipes becoming increasingly frantic. I found coffee walnut cake and light scones, plus all of her recipes for Christmas cake (including Georgina Campbell’s, Brenda’s, and a light one) but barm brack? Not to be found. I messaged a Canadian friend who I remembered had got Carmel to write it out for her my first Irish Hallowe’en, but no joy, as the Irish say.

I gave up on finding her recipe until this year, when I realized that a cousin might have it. She did, and in minutes I had it too.



Barmbrack, or tea brack, is a fruit loaf traditionally served at Hallowe’en, often with charms baked in, most commonly a ring (signifying a wedding within a year), but also a coin for wealth, cloth for poverty, a thimble for a spinster or a button for a bachelor. The Irish word breac means speckled, which it certainly is, studded with the dried fruit. The first word barm seems to have been translated as bairín, “bite” or beorma, an Old English word meaning yeasty, or even a mispronunciation of the Irish arán, bread. In any case, it is usually just called brack.

It is not an impulsive bake: the fruit soaks overnight in tea (+whiskey for even more flavour) and the loaf is best wrapped well and left for a couple of days before cutting. Soaking makes the dried fruit fat and infused with flavour.

This naturally dairy-free bake comes with various options:

  • make this in a loaf pan or the more traditional deep round cake pan (8″)
  • use whatever combo of dried fruit you want
  • substitute lemon or orange zest for the candied peel
  • throw in walnuts if you fancy them
  • add whiskey (with an ‘e’ of course)
  • you can always cut down on the sugar
  • tea choices: of course purists would use strong black tea – the kind you could trot a mouse over – and I’m sure Carmel would have rolled her eyes if anyone had suggested any other tea, but if you want to modern it up a bit, use your favourite flavour. Obviously the stronger the tea, the richer the infusion. In a burst of multiculturalism, I used Breakfast in Paris, from Canada, an Earl Grey-like black tea with lavender and bergamot. I won’t tell my husband until after he tastes the brack, though.

The amount of tea didn’t look like enough to soak the fruit in, but it was fine. The batter was pretty dense and I would have loved to have been able to ask Carmel if it was fine or not. I baked it in the 8″ round just over an hour, covering it with foil after about 40 minutes.

After baking, let cool and then wrap well and keep for a day or two before cutting. Or less, if you can’t wait.

And to finish, a bit of culture to savour with your brack:

“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.”

From ‘Clay’, in James Joyce’s Dubliners.

2 thoughts on “Barmbrack

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s