This Irish Halloween Barmbrack recipe is a tradition for All Hallow’s Eve. Chock full of raisins, citrus peel and dates, it’s a delicious accompaniment to a cup of Bewley’s tea.
Ireland is a haunting place filled with crumbling graveyards, stories of castle ghosts and tales of wailing banshees.
It’s also the birthplace of Halloween. Originating during the 5th century BC with the Celtic New Year festival Samhain (sow-en), the traditions of Halloween were brought to America in the 1840s by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine.
On the evening of Oct. 31, the day before their new year, ancient Celts would dress up in ghoulish costumes and parade around the villages, trying to disguise themselves from spirits who revisited the mortal world on that eve. After the first century AD, the Romans adopted the practice to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of apples, hence the tradition of bobbing for apples. By the 8th century, the Catholic Church renamed the holiday “All Saints Day” to commemorate saints that did not have a day of remembrance. The preceding evening was titled “All Hallow’s Eve,” which later became Halloween.
One of the most frightening characters of Halloween, “Dracula,” was created by Irish author Bram Stoker in 1897. He found the name in a book titled “An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia,” written in 1820, which stated that “Dracula” meant “Devil” in the Wallachian language.
Jack-O-Lanterns, too, originated in this ancient country. Based on an 18th century Irish folk tale, Jack was said to be a mean blacksmith who trapped the Devil in the branches of an apple tree. Rejected by God (for his evil ways) and the Devil (for trapping him), Jack was doomed to wander the earth for eternity. The story says that the Devil gave Jack a single ember to light his way through the night, placed in a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. Villagers carried on the turnip tradition in America, but using pumpkins, which were more readily available.
Today, Halloween is still a huge event in Ireland, where children make their own masks from paper maché and travel door to door singing:
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
“On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
“Although he was little his honour was great,
“Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
“Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
“And give us a penny to bury the wren.”
After collecting money, fruit and candy from neighbors, children go home for a party, where a supper of Colcannon and Barmbrack cake is served. Clean coins are wrapped in baking paper and hidden in the colcannon, while other tokens are found in each slice of barmbrack cake. Among the trinkets: a pea symbolizing an old maid, a dry bean symbolizing a bachelor, a tiny cloth symbolizing poverty, a stick symbolizing a wife beater and a ring symbolizing marriage within the year.
At the parties, children get their fortunes told, and play games such as “Snap Apple,” where an apple is hung from a string on the ceiling and kids are blindfolded. The first child to get a bite of the apple wins a prize. The same game can be played by placing apples in a basin of water.
Irish Halloween Barmbrack
- 1 cup hot strong tea (Bewley’s or Lipton)
- 1/2 cup chopped dates
- 1/2 cup chopped mixed citrus peel
- 1 cup seedless raisins
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg beaten
- 2 cups flour
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Pour tea over fruit and sugar and let stand overnight.
- The next day, sift together flour, soda, salt and baking powder and stir in egg. Add tea mixture and stir well.
- Turn dough into greased loaf pan and hide small trinkets about every inch of the dough where it will be sliced.
- Bake at 300 F for 90 minutes. Turn onto rack to cool.
- Trinket ideas: Pea symbolizing an old maid, a dry bean symbolizing a bachelor, a tiny cloth symbolizing poverty, a stick symbolizing a wife beater and a ring symbolizing marriage within the year.