Halloween is just around the corner which means that foodies and bloggers have started thinking about spooky foods to put on the table. However, if scary food and candy is not the way you lean, you will be glad to hear of this Irish hallow's eve tradition that my bread baking group 'We Knead to Bake' has found - the barmbrack. The name of the bread literally means speckled bread, on account of the bread being studded with raisins. There are all kinds of dried fruits you can use and I went for a combination of golden raisins and apricots. The original recipe I saw used sultanas and cranberries for a much better colour contrast so pick the ones you like.
Now many bread recipes use dried fruits so you must be wondering what's special about this one. The distinctive feature of barmbrack is that the fruits are first soaked in tea. Some of that tea then also gets incorporated in the dough, giving the bread a warm and delightfully spicy kick, which gets complemented by the sweetness built in the recipe. If you want to go all traditional Irish about barmbrack, drop in small trinkets when shaping the dough. Tradition has it that the object you find tells your fortune. Of course, warn your eaters first lest they break their teeth biting into your toy rings and other fortune tellers.
Here goes the recipe:
3/4 cup dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, cranberries, apricots)
1 1/2 cups strong, hot black tea
3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp active dry yeast
2/3 cup caster sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground ginger
30gm salted butter, soft at room temperature
1 lightly beaten egg
1/2 to 3/4 cup warm milk
1 tbsp caster sugar + 1 tbsp boiling water mixed to glaze the top of the bread
Put the dried fruit into a bowl. Cover them with the hot tea and leave overnight or for at least 3 to 4 hours so they plump up. Once they have plumped up, drain the liquid and reserve it to be used later. Also set the fruit aside.
Put the soaking liquid into a 1 cup measure and top up with enough warm milk to make 1 cup. Test the temperature of the resulting 'tea' - it should be slightly warmer than lukewarm. Put the tea and milk mixture in the bowl of your food processor and add yeast. Let sit for 5-10 minutes until the yeast is all bubbly, then add the flour, sugar and spices. Run the processor for a few seconds to mix everything, then add the beaten egg and the butter.
Knead into a just-sticky-to-touch and elastic dough, adding a little more flour if necessary. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured counter and flatten it out. Sprinkle the drained fruit over this and fold in half and fold once again. Then gently knead the dough so the fruit is evenly dispersed within the dough. Shape into a ball and place the dough in an oiled bowl. Turn it to coat it well with oil and then let it rise, covered, until it has doubled in volume (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours).
Gently knead the risen dough and divide it into 2 equal portions. Shape each into a round and place on baking trays lined with parchment or shape into a loaf and place in greased 5” x 8" loaf tins as you prefer. Place the ring and trinkets (if you’re using them) into the bread while shaping the loaves. Let the shaped breads rise for another 45 minutes to an hour, covered, until they have puffed up. Heat the oven to 180C and bake the breads for 40-50 minutes until the breads are golden brown and done.
About 5 minutes before finally taking the breads out of the oven, brush the tops of them with the sugar glaze and return to the oven for a few minutes for a sticky and shiny finish. Cool the breads on a wire rack for several hours (overnight, if possible) before cutting into slices.
If you think this is too much bread, don't panic. One, you can halve this recipe. Your only problem will be a leftover half egg but I am sure you can find other uses for it. The other thing you should know is that this bread freezes beautifully. So once I had sliced the bread, I wrapped individual slices in clingfilm, stacked all the slices in a large container and stashed it in the freezer. Now I just take out a slice when I feel like it, apply a little butter on both sides and heat it gently on a pan until it is nice and toasty.