Making Barmbrack for Halloween is a Celtic Treat

Making barmbrack for Halloween is a tasty Irish custom that just might give you a little insight into the coming year!

Traditional Barmbrack. Photo courtesy of Donegal Diaspora.

A Little Background on Halloween in Ireland

Did you know that October 31 is the last day of the Celtic calendar?

November 1 marked the beginning of the new year for the Celts. It was a time when the harvest was done and the Earth was preparing to rest and regenerate for spring.

On the final night of the year the festival of Samhain (sow-in) began, marking the move from the light half of the year into the darker half. It was also the time of year when the veil between the world of the living and the spirit world was at its thinnest.

Many of our modern Halloween traditions come from Celtic customs
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Making Barmbrack for Halloween

The name barmbrack is from the Irish bairín breac, which means ‘speckled loaf’.

But what makes barmbrack stand out from other sweet breads or fruit loaves is the fortune telling properties of the cake.

Before the loaf was baked 5 small items were added to the batter: a pea, a twig, a piece of cloth, a small coin, and a ring. Each of these had a significant meaning. If your slice had the pea you would not marry in the next year. The stick foretold of an unhappy union. The cloth brought bad luck for the coming year. If your slice of barmbrack had the coin you would enjoy good fortune. And to receive the ring meant you would marry before the year’s end.

If you were to buy barmbrack from a store in Ireland today it would only include the ring, but if you make it I would at least add in the coin, as well.

Two Barmbrack Recipes for Halloween

There are many recipes for barmbrack, some with yeast and some without. I have included one of each.

Irish Barmbrack (no yeast from food.com)

INGREDIENTS
3/4 C golden raisins
3/4 C currants
1/3 C crystallized cherries
1/3 C candied peel
1 C light brown sugar
2 C self rising flour
1 C cold strong tea
1 t Allspice (mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove)

DIRECTIONS
Soak the raisins and currents in cold tea overnight.
Heat oven to 350F and line a 1 lb loaf pan with greased parchment paper.
Add all the remaining ingredient to the raisins, currents, and cold tea.
Stir well and pour into the prepared loaf pan.
Bake for apprx 1 1/2 hours or until cooked through.

Keeps well in a covered tin for about a week.
Best when served warm and buttered.

Irish Halloween Barmbrack (with yeast from IrishCentral.com)

INGREDIENTS
3 1/2 cups plain flour (450g)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons (1 sachet) dried yeast (7g)
4 tablespoons butter (75g)
1/3 cup castor sugar (75g)
1 cup milk (250ml)
1 beaten egg
1 cup raisins (150g)
3/4 cup currants (100g)
1/4 cup chopped dried fruit peel (50g)
Some melted butter for greasing

DIRECTIONS
Warm the milk, add the butter and let it melt in the warm milk.

Mix the yeast with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Add half the warmed milk mixture. Add the beaten egg.

Sift the cinnamon with the flour into a bowl. Make a well in the center and pour the yeast and liquid mixture into it. Sprinkle a little flour over the liquid and leave it in a warm place for 20 minutes until the yeast froths up.

Add in the remainder of the liquid and mix the whole lot into a dough. Turn it out onto a floured board, sprinkle with the sugar, raisins, currants and chopped peel and knead them into the dough.

Put the dough into a butter-greased large bowl, cover with cling wrap and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

Knead it back again and then shape into your greased bread tin. Brush the top with melted butter and cover until doubled in bulk again.

Bake for 40 minutes in a pre-heated hot oven at 400°F (200°C /Gas mark 6) until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

To give it a nice glaze, stir 1 tablespoon sugar into 2 fl oz boiling water (50ml) and brush this over the top of the loaf when it comes out of the oven and is still hot. Leave to cool before cutting.

OPTIONAL
If you don’t like raisins or currents experiment with other dried fruits like cranberries, blueberries, or chopped dates. You can also replace the crystallized cherries in the first recipe with candied ginger.

More Fun References!

Learn more Halloween words in Irish!

Halloween in Ireland- 3 Spooktacular Castle Celebrations in the West

Old Irish Customs that Survive in Modern Ireland with author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (podcast)

Enough is Plenty: A Year on the Dingle Peninsula by Felicity Hayes-McCoy (book; Amazon affiliate link)

Modern Customs Rooted in Celtic Traditions at Halloween

Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, entry at Halloween

Did you know that Halloween began in Ireland? In fact, many of our modern day customs come from Celtic traditions at Halloween!

Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, entry at Halloween
Ashford Castle entry decorated for Halloween

The Origins of Halloween Come From Ireland

Halloween originated from the fire festival of Samhain (sow-in) and has been celebrated in Ireland for about 2,000 years.

Speak Irish  Samhain is also the Irish for November.

Samhain marked the division of the Celtic year, when light (summer) moved to dark (winter).

The festival began on October 31, the evening before the Celtic New Year on November 1st. On this evening the veil between the living and the spirit world was a thin veil. Pooka, banshees, and fairies, as well as other spirits, could travel freely.

Celtic Traditions at Halloween

Many of today’s Halloween traditions come from the customs of Samhain.

Ghouls roaming Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, County Clare, Ireland, at Halloween
Costumed ghouls at Bunratty Castle & Folk Park

Halloween Costumes

With so many spirits wandering the earth it was best to be prepared. Disguises were donned to confuse the spirits- if they thought you were also a spirit they wouldn’t carry you away! Costumes were also used to hide from the spirits of the dead who may hold a grudge!

What will your costume be this Halloween? Is it funny or scary?

Pumpkin carving at Westport House, Westport, County Mayo, Ireland
Pumpkin carving at Westport House

Carving Jack-o-Lanterns

On Samhain eve all fires were put out. Massive communal bonfires were lit, and from those embers all other fires were re-lit. To carry the embers home in the dark large root vegetables, usually turnips, were hollowed and carved to keep the ember aglow. The scary face was extra protection against the spirits.

Do you carve pumpkins for Halloween? 

Trick or Treat

Trick or Treat
Trick or Treat

This custom began in Ireland when children and the poor would go door to door prior to Samhain. In return for songs or prayers for the dead the beggars were offered food, kindling, or small coins.

Do you have a trick to earn your treat?

References If You Wish To Know More

Halloween in Ireland- 3 Spooktacular Castle Celebrations in the West

Celebrating Halloween in the West of Ireland

A Magical Halloween Stay at Ashford Castle

Learn more Halloween words in Irish!

Old Irish Customs that Survive in Modern Ireland with author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (podcast)

Enough is Plenty: A Year on the Dingle Peninsula by Felicity Hayes-McCoy (book; Amazon affiliate link)

Celtic Festivals– and introduction