With Halloween approaching, U.S. adults are filling up on ginormous bags of candy to give out to trick or treaters. If we're having a party, there may be candied apples or popcorn balls to eat. But if you're in Ireland, what you're probably enjoying is brambrack.
Why should we care about Ireland? Well, that nation, with its Celtic history, gave us what is now Halloween. It began centuries ago with Samhain, an end-of-harvest festival celebrated on October 31 with bonfires meant to burn out old spirits. People would wear ugly masks to confuse spirits and make noise to frighten them away from their homes. They might also leave food out to appease them.
Eventually, as Christianity spread through Europe, during the eighth century the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as All Saints Day (All Hallows) to commemorate those saints who did not have a specific day of remembrance. The night before was known as All Hallows Eve. And that, over time, became known as Halloween.
Maeve Rochford of Sugar and Scribe invited me over to learn how to make one of the most cherished of Irish Halloween traditions, brambrack, a dense bread/cake filled with dried fruit soaked in whiskey. In fact, "bram" comes from the old English word "beorma," or fermented. Brack comes from "brac," or speckled (from the colors of the fruit).
Maeve recently visited O'Hara's Bread Bakery in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. She told me that the bakery makes 2,400 loaves an hour for weeks in anticipation of Halloween. Traditionally, the breads would include little tokens that foretold the future for the person eating it--coins for good fortune, toy rings for marriage, and even death tokens.
While brambrack is a yeast bread, many, including Maeve's Aunt Margaret, make it without yeast (with eight children, she didn't have time for rising). So that's what Maeve made me. She used baking soda instead and the extra benefit is that you get a stronger crust. This bread is also made with cold black tea.
Now, ideally, you'll bake these bread/cakes in 7-inch cast-iron pans. But you can also make one large one in a Dutch oven. It just may take longer to cook.
While she was making the bread, Maeve also showed me some cool baking tips. First, she likes to refrigerate lemons she's going to zest. That, she said, helps separate the peel from the pith. When mixing the dry ingredients, she uses a spatula and with it folds the ingredients together so that more air gets into the mixture. She keeps an extra bowl of flour around that she dips her blending hand in both to keep the wet mixture from sticking to her hands and to better collect the excess so that there's no waste when she turns the dough into the baking pans.
Once the dough was divided into the pans, Maeve showed me two options for the top of the loaf. One was to just leave it alone (photo above) for a more rustic look. The other was to lightly spread hot water on the top with her fingers for a smooth look (photo below). She also said you could do an egg wash on the top. Just know that with either water or an egg wash, the rise won't be quite as high because of the weight of the liquid.
When the loaves are done, look for a horizontal crack in each. Surprise, that's actually a good thing.
You also don't need to wait for the loaves to cool. When you remove them from the oven, carefully flip the pans to release the brambrack, slice and serve with really good butter and jam. And a cup of Irish tea. That's what I had and, oh, I could have eaten the whole loaf. The bread is dense but not fruit cake dense. Just nice and solid with punches of sweetness from the fruit. Slathered with soft butter and jam, it was the perfect cool weather treat with a cup of Irish breakfast tea.
2 cups whiskey
2 cups dried fruit (raisins, apricots, figs, cherries)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup self-rising flour
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Zest of half a lemon (refrigerate the lemon the day before to improve zest)
1 1/2 cups cold black tea
1/4 cup melted salted butter, plus another 1/4 cup more to butter the cast iron pans
1/4 cup milk
Extra all-purpose flour
Mix together the whiskey and dried fruit and let the fruit soak in the whiskey for two days before making the loaves.
To make the loaves, preheat conventional oven to 350°. Put extra all-purpose flour in a bowl just large enough for you to dip a hand in. Coat the cast iron pan/s with butter. Set aside.
In a large bowl, fold together all dry ingredients using a spatula. Smash any lumps of brown sugar. Mix well. Add the lemon zest. Add the tea and melted butter. Mix ingredients.
About three-quarters of the way done mixing, add the milk and stir it in.
Drain the whiskey from the fruit and add the fruit to the mixture.
Put away the spatula and dip your hand into the extra flour. Then use that hand to fold in the fruit and finish blending the dough, turning it into a ball. It will be wet, which is what you want.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. If you're making a large brambrack, it could take up to an hour. Test the loaf at 45 minutes. When baked, remove from oven, flip the pans to release the breads, slice, and serve.