It is the festival of Samhain this weekend:
“At Samhain (which corresponds to modern Halloween), time lost all meaning and the past, present, and future were one. The dead, and the denizens of the Other World, walked among the living. It was a time of fairies, ghosts, demons, and witches. Winter itself was the Season of Ghosts, and Samhain is the night of their release from the Underworld. Many people lit bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay. Often a torch was lit and carried around the boundaries of the home and farm, to protect the property and residents against the spirits throughout the winter.” (Samhain)
One of the nicest Irish traditions relating to Halloween is the baking of a yeasted bread known as Báirin Breac (or Barmbrack). And so, in view of my some-would-call-it-obsession-but-I-prefer-to-call-it-passionate-fascination with Ireland (both north and south, of course), it has now become tradition in our house that we bake a portion of Báirin Breac at this time of year.
Traditionally, Barmbracks are supposed to contain a couple of objects, which are baked into the bread. Each object, when you find it in your slice, carries a symbolic meaning. For instance, if you receive:
- a pea – you will not marry next year (not a particularly nice prospect, if you aren’t married and your mammy’s been nagging you and you really wish to find your soulmate!)
- a stick (!) – ‘to beat your wife with’ (personally, that’s one custom I don’t really wish to perpetuate) – meaning that you would have an unhappy marriage (again, not reeeeeally something to anticipate with joy)
- a piece of cloth – you will have bad luck or be poor the next year (jeepers, these are really depressing!)
- a ring – you will marry within the year (finally! something nice to look forward to!)
- a coin – you will enjoy good fortune or become rich (yayyy!)
We haven’t taken up that part of the tradition, because I’d really like to change the symbolic items. For instance, Iwould rather put in the following (I guess you could get these as miniature plastic items from a toy store):
- a heart – yes, of course, to symbolise love and romance
- a shoe, car, boat or airplane – to symbolise travel to exciting places
- a dog – to symbolise exuberance, loyalty and friendship (or you may actually get a dog this year…)
- a cat – to symbolise gracefulness and inner peace (or you may actually have a cat moving in with you…)
- a horse – to symbolise passion, power and courage
- an elephant – to symbolise long life, wisdom and good memory…
I think these would be FAR nicer to find, don’t you?
A Recipe for Báirin Breac
Anyhow, I thought I’d share the recipe for with you here.
It used to be available on Wikipedia, but I see that it must have been removed since last October. Frankly, I don’t know why, because the recipe worked! Fortunately, I’d printed out a copy last year, so here it is (with illustrative photos from today’s baking experience):
You will need the following, in order of use in the recipe below:
- 50 g of mixed peel
- 60 g of mixed raisins and sultanas
- 100 ml of warm milk
- 15 g of dried baker’s yeast
- 50 g of fine white sugar (*1)
- 50 g unsalted butter (*2)
- 250 g of white flour (*3)
- half a teaspoon of allspice or mixed cinnamon and nutmeg
- half a teaspoon of salt
- 1 small egg
- I used light-brown sugar, as we don’t have refined white sugar in our house.
- I used salted butter because that’s what we have in the house, and then just used a little less salt.
- I used self-raising flour, but I think you’re supposed to use baking flour that doesn’t have a raising agent in it.
1. Soak the dried fruit overnight in weak tea.
2. Warm the milk a little, then stir the yeast and one teaspoon of the sugar into two tablespoonfuls of the milk, and let it rise for 10 minutes. [Hubby just pointed out that I should have taken the photo below from a LOW angle, because “it doesn’t look like the yeast has risen at all!” Sigh… Dear friends, I do hope you’ll take my word for it?]
3. Melt the butter and let it cool. I always melt the butter over a pot filled with a bit of water, but when you do this, make sure the plastic bowl is sturdy enough not to melt!
4. Sift the flour, the allspice and the salt into a bowl. Add the rest of the sugar.
5. Pour in the rest of the milk. Add the yeast mixture, stirring well.
6. Beat the egg with a fork, and add it to the molten and cooled butter. Stir this into the dry ingredients.
7. Knead the mixture for about 5 mins, until the dough is elastic and no longer sticks to the bowl. [It was at this point that I realised that I must have mis-estimated the butter – instead of 50g, I probably had closer to 100g. In addition, the egg had not exactly been small. My dough, quite simply, was a runny mess. No amount of ‘kneading’ – or rather squelching and sloshing – would ever transform this into a recognisable dough. As a result, I temporarily abandoned the recipe and tossed in more flour, more sugar and more spices, until I had a nice, firm and elastic dough in my hands.]
8. Cover with a wet cloth. Let it rise in a warm place for one hour. [As it was a pleasantly warm and sunny day, I left the bowl outside next to a wall, where the sun would heat it up from above, and the reflected heat from the wall and the tarmac would heat it up from below.]
9. Use the time to wash the dirty dishes (less unpleasant work to do later and the kitchen will look habitable once more, in case guests pop over unexpectedly). Let the mixed peel and fruit dry – and if necessary, chop the mixed peel up into small sections.
10. Roll the mixed peel and the raisins and sultanas in a little flour.
11. Add these to the risen dough, and knead the mixture vigorously.
12. Butter a baking tin and spread the mixture evenly into it. Leave to rise for 30 minutes. I wrapped it in the damp cloth and left it in the sunshine again.
13. Shortly before the 30 mins are up, heat the oven to 220°C (428°F). Put the mixture in to bake for 25 minutes. (Set a timer to be on the safe side.)
14. Then reduce the heat to 190°C (374°F) and bake a little longer. [In our oven, we can either get the heat from the grid at the bottom, or from the top, but not from both at the same time. So I usually give it heat from below first, to make sure that it rises, and then reduced heat from the top for the last 1/4 of the time, to make sure that it doesn’t burn.]
15. Let the barmbrack cool down for 15 minutes after taking it out of the oven. Allow it to cool thoroughly before cutting. Serve with tea and butter. [Hm… the COOLING DOWN period is always extremely short in our household… which may well be why I have such a stomach-ache at the moment… urgh…]
But honestly, look at this picture below:
Mugs of tea, and steaming hot, fresh-from-the-oven, irresistably fragrant Báirin Breac with a dollop of butter melting into each delectable piece – and tell me whether YOU would be able to wait?
Us neither. 😀
Have a happy Halloween!