Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nellie's Barmbrack

A traditional Halloween treat, and that's no trick!

Happy Halloween, everyone! And a blessed Samhain too, if you celebrate today as the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Although many people think of Halloween as a very American holiday because of the popularity of trick or treating in the States and Canada, it actually traces its roots back to Ireland and Scotland, and the Pagan holiday Samhain! Irish and Scottish immigrants brought many of their Halloween customs and traditions over to North America in the 1840's.

Today, we're going to talk about - and make! - some of those traditions. Okay, we're only making barmbrack, but I found out a lot of interesting information while I was doing research for this post, and I'm excited to share it with you!

Although it's difficult to trace the history of Halloween and its traditions precisely because they're so old, there's definitely a lot of evidence that things like jack-o'-lanterns are a lot older than you might think they are. In Ireland, people hollowed out turnips and carved faces on them to represent the spirits of the dead, or ward off evil spirits from their homes. Whichever interpretation of the practice is actually accurate, the custom was carried over when families immigrated to America, but the turnips were swapped out with pumpkins!

To me, pumpkins definitely seem like a more logical choice than a turnip. At least pumpkins are easier to hollow out once you cut through the thick walls of the fruit!

Barmbrack is another traditional Irish custom, and one I'd never heard of before earlier this year! It's featured briefly in an episode of Boardwalk Empire, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that was what I wanted to feature for Halloween this year. There are a bunch of other Irish dishes that are traditionally associated with Halloween, but this one seemed like it would be the most fun to make.

Barmbrack can be eaten year round, but there's a specific Halloween tradition involving this fruit filled bread that we'll get to in a little bit.

Some recipes call for yeast, making it more of a bread than a cake, but I hate working with yeast and specifically went looking for one that just used baking soda to make it rise. I found my recipe on, and while it does require a little bit of time to make, it's actually a very simple recipe and doesn't take too much thought to get it done.

To start, you take 2 1/12 cups of mixed dry fruit and soak it in 1 1/2 cups of freshly made tea for an hour. This rehydrates the fruit a little, and adds some extra flavor.

This is really the only part of the process that takes a while in terms of actually getting the ingredients together. Once you've patted the fruit dry, you add it into a bowl with an egg, 1 1/2 cups of sugar, 1 teapsoon of orange zest, and 1/4 of a cup of lemon marmalade, which I didn't love eating on its own, but ended up tasting really good in the finished product. This all gets mixed together into a gooey mass.

And then you add in a mixture of 2 1/2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda. This created a really, really stiff dough which was kind of difficult to work with, and didn't really look especially appealing in the mixing bowl.

This got carefully plopped into my greased bundt pan, and then pressed in deeper to get it all even. It bakes in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour, and while I wasn't sure how much it would rise, it did actually puff up quite a bit in the pan!

This is supposed to cool down in the pan for two hours before you try to remove it. After the disaster I had with my burnt sugar cakes, I gave this pan several good hard smacks on our counter top to make sure we weren't going to wind up with a broken barmbrack.

What better way to kill two hours than figuring out what Halloween costume you wanted to wear?

Dressing up in costumes for Halloween or Samhain is - just like jack-o'-lantern - a pretty old tradition which was at least in part brought to the US by Irish and Scottish immigrants, but the actual term "trick or treating" and the custom we know today really only goes back to the 1930's or so, and was almost exclusively an American and Canadian tradition. The first time we actually see the phrase used in print comes from Alberta, Canada in 1927, and most publications before that show kids dressing up, but make no mention of them asking for candies. Some people claim that the practice was started to encourage kids not to vandalize their neighborhoods, but there's actually not a lot of historical evidence proving that this was a nationwide trend or 100% the reason adults started handing out candy. Kids had been dressing up for Halloween for decades, and simply adapted the ancient custom of begging for sweets at their neighbor's houses.

In the American Girl series, the only character who celebrates Halloween is Molly, which actually is just shy of being pretty historically inaccurate. While trick or treating had become a nationwide trend in the 30's, sugar rationing during World War II put a bit of a dampener on the tradition, and it kind of fell out of favor until the 1950's when rationing was a thing of the past. Since Meet Molly is set in October of 1943, either Molly's neighbor just really didn't want to give up the tradition, or they fudged it a bit because Valerie Tripp wanted to include aspects of her own childhood in the 50's into her story line. The popularity of trick or treating was also helped by the publication of a Peanuts comic in 1951 that featured the characters trick or treating!

Since Nellie and Samantha are from the early 1900's, and and Rebecca is from the 1910's, it's likely their Halloween would be fairly different from Kit, Molly, Maryellen or Julie's. They would have been able to get dressed up (and early Halloween costumes are true nightmare fuel!) and then attended Halloween parties, but wouldn't have walked around their neighborhood begging for candy.

Back to the barmbrack!

My barmbrack popped right out of the pan when it had cooled down, and it felt pretty dense and brick like. I was a little worried about what it would taste like, or if the texture would be super off putting...

But it wasn't!

This recipe produced a really cakey barmbrack, which I'm not sure is 100% authentic. Since I didn't grow up eating this, I have nothing to compare it to, but commercially produced barmbrack and some of the other recipes I saw online look a lot more bready and airy than this does. It's supposed to be sweeter than a bread you'd use for sandwiches, but still definitely more a bread than a cake. This recipe absolutely feels more like a cake, or a tea bread both texture and flavor wise.

Not that that's a bad thing, obviously! I'm certainly a fan of tea breads and cake in almost all forms, and this one was yummy. Between the cinnamon, nutmeg and dried fruit, the flavor profile definitely felt more like a Christmas treat than something I'd associate with Halloween, but it was still good, and I'd definitely make it again. The lemon marmalade gave it a really pleasant citrus aftertaste, which was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. I've got enough lemon marmalade left over to make at least one more brack, so might as well, right?

So, what's this about a special Halloween tradition?

At Halloween - and this is the part that's included in Boardwalk Empire - several different objects are hidden inside the barmbrack as a sort of party game, similar to a Twelfth Night or Three Kings Day cake. Each guest examines their piece of brack looking for a pea, which means they won't get married that year, a ring, which means they would, a rag, which means they will run into financial trouble, a stick, which means their marriage will be unhappy, and a coin, which means good fortune. Kind of an awful game when you really think about it, right? Of course, as Margaret Schroeder says, it's just a game, but I still think it could use one or two more "prizes" that are a little less depressing.

These objects are supposed to be gently inserted into the base of the cooked bread, rather than added before you've baked it. I unfortunately didn't have any dried peas, so we're making do with a bean in place of it...

And look at that! Looks like Nellie won't be getting married this year. Probably for the best, considering she's ten years old and all. Bullet dodged.

So that's some Halloween trivia for you! Hopefully you enjoyed learning about some of the Celtic origins of Halloween, because I definitely had a good time doing research for this post. Have a safe, happy Halloween, and we'll catch you all next time!

And here's hoping you luck out with the prizes in your barmbrack!


  1. Really interesting research! And I love your pictures, especially the one of the girls picking out costumes! Now I wish I had gotten Rebecca's costume chest when it was on sale a while back.

    1. Thank you! It's definitely a nice piece, I'm glad I grabbed it when I did. And I love doing pictures like that, so it's always nice to hear people like them. :D

  2. I was really surprised by this given the ingredients. It was really tasty and I would happily eat it again. Thanks for the interesting information about Halloween history!