In 19th-century Ireland, Tea & Barmbrack was considered a "substantial breakfast", a "comfortable meal" and an "abundant repast" for any occasion.
In the 1830s, a large slice of barm-brack was a poor man's substitute for plum pudding at Christmas.
It was traditional for Dublin bakers to gift customers a free barmbrack on Michaelmas Day (September 29).
Barmbrack was one of the treats eaten at the Orange Tea & Cocoa Party in Dublin (commemorating the birth of King William III) in November 1842.
In 1845, for celebrating 12th night (January 6) it could be procured from the Belfast Confectionery House in Dublin for as little as 3d (threepence).
In 1849, stealing a barmbrack from a cake shop ran the risk of a full week's imprisonment or 24 lashes.
In the 1860s "for the All Hallows Eve Festival – a superior barmbrack – all with rings inside" could be had for as little as fourpence.
Ahh... the Caraway Seed
Love them? Hate them? The caraway seed was a favourite in Irish cakes back in the day, including the Barmbrack. Whether it featured in your ancestors' Barmbrack was a matter of preference and/or availability.
Currants, raisins or both?
The barmbrack was rich in fruit (but not as rich as a Plum Pudding – no raisins or whiskey!) Up until the mid-19th-century raisins were called "plums" and a mainstay feature of all confections. Barmbrack, being a more affordable cake, called for well-washed currants which were more readily available and affordable (also not as sweet).
The tradition of soaking the fruit overnight in cold tea, is not all that old either. Tea did not become a drink of the masses until the later 1860s. Back then eggs (an important source of income) were also considered a luxury and would not have been added to a barmbrack.
Yeast or not?
What kind do you remember eating? Unless one lived in proximity to a baker, yeast was not commonly available.
Farmer's Gazette - 21 Dec 1867: Got a good recipe for making a Christmas barmbrack or cake? The dough may be got at the bakers, or may be made at home with yeast, like common bread; it should then be mixed with well-washed currants, stoned raisins, and shred candied orange and citron peel, so as not to make it either too rich or too poor in fruit; sugar to taste. Some put a few caraway seeds in it, others do not; it is then baked."
IRISH BARM BRACK: Authentic 19th-Century Recipe
So how would the barmbrack have tasted to our ancestors? Here's a traditional 19th-century recipe for barmbrack as published in The Queen (Jun 1889) that yields 2 round, medium-size cakes.
"There is a delicious old fashioned sort of cake which still lingers in Ireland, and for anything I know, in other places as well, known to the initiated by the name of Barm-brack. The woman from whom I got the recipe had been, for many years, cook in the house of an Irish priest but whether he appreciated "Barm bracks" as highly a certain of the laity have since done, I never clearly ascertained.
Take a half-pound of butter, 1/2 lb of cooking sugar, 1/2 lb of currants, 1 and 1/2 lb of flour, and about a quart of milk. Also some sliced lemon and citron peel, a tablespoonful and a half of baking powder, 1 teaspoonful of mixed spice, and two teaspoonsful of caraway seeds.
Put the one and a half pound flour in a large bowl. Break the butter into small pieces and rub it into the flour till it is all quite fine, then put in all the other dry ingredients mixing everything thoroughly well together, and last of all add the milk. Have a couple of medium-sized cake tins ready-buttered, and put the mixture into them. It should about half fill each of the tins. Bake the cakes for about an hour in a brisk oven (or for an hour and a half in a rather slower one). Let your barm bracks get cold and then enjoy them."
Those accustomed to baking barm bracks today will notice a few differences... There's no mention of soaking the dried fruit overnight in cold tea. But milk is not something we tend to add today. It also seems to be missing an egg – perhaps too much of a luxury in those days?
We've given this recipe a try and translated it into modern measurements to help you take part in some Irish culinary history...
Ingredients - makes 2 cakes
flour (1½ lb) 5.5 cups / 540g
baking powder 1½ tablespoons
mixed spice 1 teaspoon
butter (½ lb) 1 cup/ 225g
sugar (½ lb) 1.2 cups/ 225g
currants (1 lb) 4 cups / 450g
some sliced lemon
some citron peel
caraway seeds 2 teaspoons
milk (about a quart) 1 cup / 250ml)
Have a couple of medium-sized cake tins ready-buttered.
1. Put the flour in a large bowl.
2. Break the butter into small pieces and rub it into the flour till it is all quite fine.
3. Then put in all the other dry ingredients mixing everything thoroughly well together.
4. Last of all, add the milk a little at a time (add more or less until you have a moist batter)
5. Put the mixture into the ready-buttered tins – it should about half fill each of the tins.
6. Bake the cakes for about 1 hour in a brisk oven (170 C / 338F / Gas Mark 3.5) or for 1½ hours in a rather slower one.
7. Let your barm bracks get cold and then enjoy them!
What charms went in the Halloween Barmbrack?
Whatever about the dough recipe – from the 1860s onwards – the Halloween barmbrack had to have a ring in it. Newspaper ads taken out by bakers and confectioners took great pains to promise a ring was to be found in all their barmbracks (at Halloween only of course). By the 1930s, other items to predict the future (if not death by choking on any of them) were a feature of home-bakes and varied from family to family. For example: "a ring, cross, thimble, nut, and a bit of silver". The person who finds...
Over to you ...
We've started an Irish Diaspora Cook Club thread on our message board, specifically for sharing Recipes.
Whether you wish to give this one a try and/ or recommend your own or another's Barm Brack favourite, or share a memory of Halloween in your house – we'd love to hear from you HERE.