Like you’ve just opened a grave, dug deep into the earth and dusted away the soil to be met with an eerie crypt of the faithfully departed. As Halloween marks the link between the living and the dead, we wanted to make a particularly spooky offering that would easily take perfect pride of place at your haunted celebrations.
This idea came to us as we wanted to keep some traditions of the Halloween table alive (well, deceased, in this case) and honour the Irish tradition of bairín breac (barmbrack), but serve it with a twist. We are actually from one of the areas most associated with ancient Celtic Halloween celebrations, near the Hill of Tara in the where the historic seat of the high King of Ireland is located.
Bonfires blaze and noise fills the air during a spiritual yet eerie occasion where time almost stands still. The division between living and dead is more narrow now and spirits walk freely between the two realms under the cover of darkness. Departed souls return to their former home welcomed by family whilst harmful spirits like puca, banshee, evil fairies and hellish spirits would also bridge the gap, returning to wreak havoc. For this reason, costumes were born long ago as people would wear masks and spooky disguises to confuse and ward off the unwelcome spirits.
Samhain (Halloween) comes at a particular point in time in the ancient Irish calendar. Pre-Christian ancestors, a Pagan people called the Druids, celebrated the exact point marking summer’s end and winter’s beginning. A time of physical and psychological change, the occasion also signified casting out the old and embracing the new whilst. Indeed the entire month of November is known as Samhain in Gaeilge and as summer segues into the harsh, barren and cold winter, Halloween traditionally marked the harvest festival, where crops were cut and stored for the colder months and animals brought in from the fields.
In contrast to the UK, Ireland very much embraces Halloween every year. Irish emigrants, particularly around the time of the Great Famine, brought their customs and traditions to America and to this day the States still celebrate the occasion in similar ways to Ireland.
The recipe for this bairin breac – a traditional Irish fruit loaf associated with Halloween – came from a recipe book titled Traditional Irish Recipes by George L. Thompson. Originally published in 1982, we bought our copy (re-published in 200) last year on the internet.
The brack naturally colours a rich brown on the outside as it cooks, but when cut into a traditional coffin shape the beautifully pale yellow crumb studded with plump fruit and peel blazes out with the brightness of a full moon on a clear All Hallow’s Eve. To combat this, and to add a deep colour and taste all around, we mixed two cooled cups of freshly brewed coffee, sweetened with some honey and vanilla, and poured it over the brighter internal bits now exposed after cutting into the coffing shape, then pierced holes randomly through the “coffin lid” and drizzled the rest over the top to keep the interior moist and full of flavour.
To serve, we simply placed the cooked, cooled and cut brack into a black roasting tin and covered with “soil”, to lie fittingly in it’s final resting place. This soil in question is flour rubbed with butter, cocoa powder, finely chopped nuts and raisins. It’s edible, but doesn’t taste nice as the flour is raw, so in this case it’s strictly aesthetic to sprinkle around the perimeter. There’s lots of recipes online for better edible soil that you can find, try out, and use; we particularly like our friend Catriona’s recipe from Wholesome Ireland.
- 450g flour (16oz / 1lb)
- 240g sultanas (8oz / 1 cup)
- 240g currants (8oz / 1 cup)
- 120g mixed peel (4oz / 1/2 cup)
- 60g butter (2oz / 1/4 cup)
- 60g brown sugar (2oz / 1/4 cup)
- 2 eggs
- 2 x 7g sachets of yeast (1/2 oz)
- 240ml milk (1/2 pint)
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
Thompson’s recipe instructions are as follows:
- All the ingredients must be at blood heat. Stir together the flour, nutmeg, salt, and then rub in the butter.
- Cream the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar in a little of the tepid milk.
- Mix the remaining sugar with the flour.
- Add the milk to the yeast and beaten eggs, keeping aside a little of the egg to glaze the bread, if required.
- Beat the liquid into the dry ingredients, until the batter is stiff but elastic, then fold in the dried fruit and peel.
- Turn into a buttered 8″ cake tin, cover with a cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for one hour.
- Bake in the oven at 200°C (Fan 180°C/400°F) for one hour, adding the glaze five minutes before being taken out.