Happy Celtic New Year Barmbrack

Barmbrack is a traditional Celtic bread served during Samhain which is the first day of the traditional Celtic year and also the first day of winter. Samhain, pronounced "sah-win" or "sow-in," is celebrated halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st.

The name “barmbrack” (or Bairin Breac,) originates from the Irish word bairĂ­n for "yeasted loaf" and breac for "speckled," hence a speckled loaf. To make a traditional barmbrack, trinkets and charms are always added into the mixture. Upon cooling, pieces of the cake are carefully cut and eaten and the charms discovered. As you can see the meanings are somewhat outdated (and downright gloomy and disheartening if you ask me), but the charms for Barmbrack traditionally included:

Gold ring: Marriage
Bean or pea: Won’t be married
Button: Bachelorhood
Thimble: Spinsterhood
Matchstick: Unhappy marriage
Coin: Wealth
A small piece of cloth: Poverty

Naturally, your own charms and meanings can and should be utilized as a part of your own Samhain traditions. Each charm should be wrapped carefully in parchment paper and placed in equal intervals through the bread before its final rise. Remember, when choosing to add charms to your Barmbrack, be certain to warn your guests before consuming. What might work a little better is to follow the method used by makers of Southern bridesmaids’ cakes. Each charm is attached to a little ribbon, and inserted after baking. The guests then choose a ribbon and pull it from the bread. No cheating and less chance of a lost charm choking someone. Even the most depressing charm would be better than a trip to the ER!

  • 1 cup of brewed tea
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup dried fruit
  • 1 package of yeast
  • 1 teaspoon white sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups warm milk
  • 4 cups white flour
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 egg, beaten

In a cup of hot tea, steep the dried fruit and raisins and allow to soak overnight.  I prefer to use an Orange Pekoe tea for a wonderful flavor, but any black tea can be used. Drain the excess liquid from the fruit before adding to the dough.

Proof the yeast by a teaspoon of sugar to the warm milk and adding yeast. The yeast should begin to bubble and get foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, spices and salt and then cut in the butter. Pour the rest of the warm milk and the beaten egg into the yeast mixture and combine with the dry ingredients. Beat well and knead until the batter is stiff but elastic.

Knead in the tea-soaked fruit a little bit at a time until fully incorporated. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave in a warm place until the dough doubles in size. Knead again for another 2 or 3 minutes and divide into two round loaves.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. If using, wrap the charms in parchment or waxed paper and then roll them in the dough at equal intervals. Cover again and let the dough rise for another 30 minutes to an hour while the oven preheats. Bake for about an hour, until the tops of the loaves are nicely browned and the bread sounds hollow when thumped.

The barmbrack is wonderful served warm with a bit of fresh butter or cream cheese. It should keep for about a week in a sealed container. Stale barmbrack makes delicious French toast or bread pudding too.