The ancient Celtic harvest feast called Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year. It’s celebrated on October 31-November 1, which is nearly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
It was suggested in the late nineteenth century that it was the “Celtic New Year,” and over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ Days merged to create our modern celebration of Halloween.
Several foods are traditionally eaten in Ireland at this time, especially Barmbrack, a yeast fruit bread. According to tradition, hidden in the Halloween Barmbrack were tokens to foretell the future — a ring for the bride-to- be, a thimble for the one who would never marry, and a small piece of cloth indicating the one who would be poor.
Fortune-telling aside, Barmbrack is delicious anytime of the year, but is most popular in the autumn. Serve it spread with butter and toast “Happy Halloween” (oíche shamhna shona duit)! You’ll find this and other delicious recipes in my cookbook Favorite Flavors of Ireland. You can order signed copies at www.irishcook.com.
MAKES 1 LOAF
- 2 cups dried fruit such as raisins, sultanas, and currants
- 1 heaping tablespoon candied mixed peel
- 2 cups strong black tea
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 1 (1/4-ounce) package rapid rise active dried yeast (see Note)
- 4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup milk
- 1 large egg, beaten
- Softened butter for serving
- In a medium bowl, soak the fruit and mixed peel in the tea overnight.
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, nutmeg, salt, sugar, and yeast. With a pastry cutter or your fingers, work in the butter until it resembles coarse crumbs.
- In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk to 120° F. Beat the egg into the milk and then stir into the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon, and then turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the dough is smooth.
- Drain the fruit and knead it into the dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover with a clean cloth, and let rest for 10 minutes.
- Transfer the dough to a greased 8-inch round pan, cover, and let it rise again for 30 to 45 minutes, or until doubled in size.
- Preheat oven to 400° F. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is brown and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before cutting into slices. Serve spread with butter.
Note: Rapid rise yeast is mixed directly into the dry ingredients. It replaces the first rise in two-rise recipes.
Margaret M. Johnson is the author eleven Irish cookbooks, most recently Favorite Flavors of Ireland, Christmas Flavors of Ireland, and Flavors of Ireland. For further details, visit her website www.irishcook.com