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Barmbrack - What is Irish Fruit Bread?

Updated on December 23, 2011


Barmbrack shares with colcannon its use at Samhain (November 1) and its occasional use as a means by which to tell the future, but otherwise all similarities cease. While colcannon is made with potatoes, cabbage and butter, barmbrack is a soda bread containing dried fruits and candied zest.

Because of its association with Samhain – the Celtic day for a Halloween type festival – barmbrack, and sometimes colcannon, are used in a game in which the goal is to tell the future. The bread is filled with little tokens in various shapes, and the recipient of each shape is supposed to be able to tell what the coming year will mean. American continue this type of fortune telling tradition with the tokens found in the King’s Cake at Mardi Gras, and the bridesmaids’ cake served at bridesmaids’ luncheons in the South.

A barmbrack is somewhere between a bread and a cake, although it does contain raisins and other dried fruits which serve to sweeten it It is mostly served toasted in slices with tea. We don’t have a set tea time here in America so we can eat it at midnight with beer and nachos if we want.

Barmbrack is a combination of two works – the Irish word báirín (meaning yeasty loaf) and the work breac, which means speckled. The speckling is the fruits and zest ‘speckled’ through the loaf. The yeast for this bread originally came from the foam skimmed from the top of beer as it fermented. Pretty clever – beer and munchies in one fell swoop.

Tokens or Charms for Barmbrack:

Bean: symbolizes poverty or bachelorhood (not sure why these are tied together!)

Button: symbolizes bachelorhood

A small piece of cloth or tiny rag: symbolizes poverty

Coin: symbolizes wealth

Matchstick: symbolizes the husband will beat the wife

Gold ring: symbolizes marriage

Thimble: symbolizes spinsterhood

Religious medal, often of the Virgin Mary: symbolizes the recipient is destined for Holy Orders

I found several notes that called for the religious medal or item, however, I also saw notes that said that everyone sees it written in instructions, but no one actually uses it. I do know that the bean, coin, ring and thimble are used by American brides in the cakes at their bridesmaids’ luncheons.

If you want – you can swap out the charms to be anything you wish, and assign whatever meaning you feel is appropriate. Most recipes and discussions I found for barmbrack called for the charms to be wrapped in parchment paper before inserting into the dough at equal intervals. There’s also the tradition that the baker of the bread cut and distribute the bread, because only the baker will know where the charms are and therefore distribute them equitably. Frankly this seems an invitation for the coolest charms to go to the favorite person.

What might work a little better is to follow the method used by makers of Southern bridesmaids cakes. Each charm is attached to a little ribbon, and inserted after baking. The guests then choose a ribbon and pull it from the bread. No favorites, and less chance of a lost charm choking someone to death. That’s not a nice party favor.

Before Rising
Before Rising
After Rising
After Rising
  • 1cup of tea – you can use flavored teas if you wish
  • 4 cups all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • ¼  tsp allspice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 4 Tbl butter, frozen
  • 1 Tbl yeast (or 1 packet)
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp white sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups lukewarm milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 cups dried fruit
  1. Mix the raisins and dried fruit with the ½ cup of brown sugar. Pour 1 cup of tea over the fruit and mix to combine. Cover tightly and allow to sit overnight. The fruit will absorb the tea. You can use any kind you like, just remember that fruited or citrus teas are probably better. The fruits will take on the flavors of the tea, so some kinds of tea might be odd. You can certainly use plain old black tea as well. Before you add it to the batter, let it sit in a small colander or sieve to remove excess liquid. Reserve 1 Tbl of the soaking liquid for the dough later. The fruit will be much softer, so be careful when you knead it into the dough so you don’t break it up too much. I used a mixed group of cherries, sweetened cranberries and blueberries. If we’re going to make an Irish American barmbrack, then let’s use our best!
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. In a small bowl or measuring cup, stir together the warm milk, yeast and sugar. Allow it to proof while you mix the dry ingredients.
  4. Sift together flour, spices and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer.
  5. With a microplane grater, grate the butter into the flour mixture. Mix well but briefly to incorporate the butter into the dough. You can do this with a cheese grater as well. A few seconds and your done, and the heat of your fingers won’t melt the butter. Be careful though – make sure your mixing bowl is deep, otherwise you’ll end up with the flour all over you and the kitchen both.
  6. Crack the egg into the milk-yeast mixture. Whisk well. Slowly add the milk mixture to the dry ingredients. Add the reserved soaking liquid from the fruit. Mix well, kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic.
  7. Gently knead in the softened fruit – don’t over mix it at this point or the fruit will disintegrate.  Place the dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel. Allow it to rest in a warm spot until doubled in size.
  8. Knead the dough again. Divide it in half. Place each half in a greased one pound loaf pan. If you’re baking the charms in, wrap them now in parchment paper and tuck them into the dough. Cover the pans again and allow to rise until the dough reaches the top of the pans. About ½ to 1 hour.
  9. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, until the top is nicely browned and the bread sounds hollow when thumped. Serve in thick slices with lots of butter.


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