Each October, Ireland welcomes the tradition of the festival of Samhain (pronounced saw-wen) which is said to hold the origins of Halloween. Samhain had three distinct elements. Firstly, it was an important fire festival, celebrated over the evening of October 31, and throughout the following day when fires would be ceremonially lit by Druids.
It was also a festival not unlike the modern New Year’s Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new. To Irish pagan ancestors, it marked the end of the pastoral cycle, when all the crops would have been gathered and placed in storage for the long winter ahead and when livestock would be brought in from the fields and selected for slaughter or breeding.
But it was also, as the last day of the year, when the souls of the departed would return to their former homes and when potentially malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld and were visible to mankind.
It is customary to bake a Barm Brack, a fruit-filled tea bread on Samhain each year. This sweet tea bread is also a Halloween tradition; a token is baked into it to be used as a form of fortune-telling. The eater may find a ring (predicting impending marriage); a button or thimble (portents of bachelor or spinsterhood respectively); or a coin, (presaging wealth). In earlier (and less culturally sensitive times), items may have included a rag or dried pea, (for poverty) or a matchstick, (for impending death).
These days, the tokens aren’t always included, but it is still fun to carefully add trinkets to the mix. If you buy a brack at the supermarket or bakery that is labeled “Halloween Brack” there still will be a ring or another piece hidden inside as well so you must mind yourself when biting into a slice!
Traditional Halloween Brambrack
- Makes 1 8” round loaf
- 3 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
- 3/4 ounce active dried yeast
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 1/2 cups golden raisins
- 1 1/2 cups currants
- 1 cup candied mixed peel
- 1 toy ring or charm wrapped in waxed paper
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, nutmeg, and salt. With a pastry cutter, blend in the butter until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a separate bowl, combine the yeast with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Add the remaining sugar to the flour mixture and blend well.
In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk to just below boiling then add to the yeast and sugar. Stir in the all but one tablespoon of the eggs (reserve this for use as a glaze) and add to the dry ingredients. Knead lightly to produce an elastic dough. With a wooden spoon, fold in the fruit. Add in the trinkets if using. Transfer to a well-greased 8-inch round cake pan. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place to rise (it should double in size in about 1 hour.) Preheat oven to 400°F.
Brush the top of the brack with a beaten egg to glaze. Bake until golden, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes.
Serve slices with heaps of hot tea.