Ah, if you haven’t been here before: céad míle fáilte. With today being St. Patrick’s Day, and virtually everyone claiming some ancestor from the Emerald Isle, we thought we’d go with it and make up a batch of traditional Barm Brack to allow those who want to exaggerate just a wee bit to claim it’s an old family recipe. We made it simply because we wanted to try something new this St. Patrick’s day.
We aren’t going to claim it’s our family recipe that came across the storm-tossed sea during the Irish diaspora, but we will tell you that it is, indeed, an authentic Irish Barm Brack recipe from Noel McMeel’s book, Irish Pantry: Traditional Breads, Preserves, and Goodies to Feed the Ones You Love, where he refers to it as The Family Barm Brack. Sounds about as Irish as you can get. We should note that we modified the recipe just a bit below to correct some inconsistencies in the measurements and to better reflect (we think) the original intention.
Please note that in the photos below we’re making two loaves, but this recipe will make just one.
You might as well buy organic raisins as they’re only about 50 cents more than non-organic; we think 50 cents is a small price to pay to reduce the amount of pesticides used in the fields and that we ingest. For the tea, we used a combination of Irish Breakfast tea and Earl Grey. For maximum eggosity, use eggs from hens that are truly free range. It makes a difference. We didn’t have ground cloves, so we ground them ourselves: wow, talk about a difference in aroma and taste. Between our clove experience and having switched to freshly grating nutmeg, we’re working in that direction for cinnamon, too. The difference in the amount of flavor is huge. Finally, butter, as always, is unsalted.
Procedure in detail:
Soak raisins. In a heatproof large bowl, brew up two cups of strong tea. Since you’ll be draining the raisins later, exact measurement of the tea isn’t critical, so put in a couple of tea bags, add about 2 cups of boiling water and let steep until the water is cool. Remove the tea bags, and add the raisins. Place in the fridge overnight. When you’re ready to make the brack, drain.
Proof yeast. In a small microwavable bowl (we use a Pyrex measuring cup) measure the milk and then heat to 110°F. In our microwave, this takes about 40 seconds to go from cold milk to warm milk. Check that it’s ready with either a thermometer or by sticking your clean finger into the milk to check the temperature. The milk should feel quite warm, but not at all hot. If you’re in doubt, err on the cool side, which will mean the yeast will take a bit longer to activate, rather than too hot, which will kill the yeast. Once the milk is warm, stir in 2 teaspoons of sugar and the yeast. Let stand until foamy, 10 minutes. Watch it, as it can get quite foamy.
Mix dry ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1/4 cup of sugar, the spices, and the salt. Once the flour mixture looks uniform, make a well in the center for the liquid ingredients.
Add liquids. Pour the lightly beaten egg into the flour mixture, pour in the yeast mixture, and finally add the melted butter. As an aside, we find that melting butter in the microwave is the fastest and easiest method. Quickly start stirring and continue until the dough comes together, about 2 minutes.
Knead. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, 5 to 10 minutes.
Add raisins. This is actually harder, well, messier, than it seems. Start adding raisins to the dough, a handful at a time, while kneading them in. If the dough becomes too sticky and messy, transfer to a lightly buttered bowl, and work with it as best you can. Eventually, you’ll work in all the raisins. Then shape, as best you can, into a ball, and, if you haven’t already, place dough in a large, lightly buttered, bowl.
Let rise. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel, and let rise until doubled. Depending on the temperature, this can take from 1 to 2 hours.
Shape. Press the dough down, knead for a minute or two (if possible), then once again shape into a ball (as best you can), and transfer to a lightly buttered 8-inch cake pan.
Let rise. Cover the dough with a clean towel and let rise until doubled. This time it should take about half as long as the for the first rise, so anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes or so.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Place a rack in the center of the oven.
Bake. Once your brack has doubled, bake it until it’s browned on top and sounds hollow when tapped, about 40 minutes. If the bread starts to get too brown, cover the top with a piece of foil. Don’t seal the foil around the edges; you want the steam to escape.
Cool. Transfer to a rack and cool completely before slicing. Slicing the brack while warm will cause it to fall apart.
The taste of this is very good, but the recipe was troublesome, although we think that the problems were caused by the inconsistencies referred to above. Basically, we think that the original recipe called for too little flour and too many raisins, making a quite sticky dough. We’ve adjusted the amounts above so you should end up with a less sticky dough. Even so, we think that there isn’t enough dough as compared to the raisins to be worth the effort of making a yeast dough. We think you can get pretty much the same type of bread by using the Irish Tea Brack we’ve written about. Overall, five stars for taste, three for ease, making four stars overall.