A Taste of Home | Barnbrack [Recipe]
I longed for a taste of home. Something simple, wholesome, comforting – something my mother used to make. Halloween was coming and I longed for a bowl of colcannon, that dreamy combination of creamy mashed potato and deep green curly kale. Mam always made colcannon for Halloween and always took the trouble to hide a coin, a ring and a rag for us to find. We always knew what was coming but there was something safe and soothing about the familiarity. I longed for that feeling.*
I searched the length and breadth of Lithuania for kale but could not find any. I tried every supermarket and farmers’ market I came across but there wasn’t a single head to be found. Damn. I resigned myself to making the colcannon with green cabbage instead – it wouldn’t be quite the same, but it would do. No sign of that, either. I couldn’t believe it – no green cabbage? Really? Not having green cabbage is akin to not having potatoes or onions or carrots – it’s so basic I just couldn’t imagine it not being available. I asked the farmers at the market. One of them tried to pawn me off with a big solid head of white cabbage. It was even labelled “white cabbage” – who did he think he was kidding. I was frustrated and upset – all I wanted was cabbage. Damn.
Halloween has become a strange day to me, sandwiched as it between my mam’s birthday and my nana’s anniversary. It’s hard to think back to a childhood Halloween without at least one of them being part of the celebrations. As kids we would get our mid-term break around Halloween and my nana would often come to stay. Mam would help us to make masks for googing (trick-or-treating) and have basins of water ready for apple bobbing when we got home. We’d drink tea, eat thick slices of homemade barnbrack slathered with butter and go to bed exhausted and happy.
Halloween is not celebrated in Lithuania in the way that it is in Ireland, the US and many western countries. Kids don’t typically dress up and go trick or treating, although the practice is starting to creep in. Instead, people celebrate November 1st, All Saints Day. During the last few weeks of October, graveyards are busy with people tidying graves ready for the occasion. On November 1st people travel from far and wide to visit graves of lost loved ones, leaving flowers and lighting candles. The glow of candles in the cold night air is quite a sight to behold. There could be twenty candles on a single grave, so thousands across the whole graveyard. It is solemn, poignant and beautiful.
Disappointed that I couldn’t make colcannon I decided instead to make a barnbrack. But not just any barnbrack – I wanted my mam’s brack. For nearly 40 years my mam kept all her favourite recipes in an old diary, sometimes as clippings from newspapers and sometimes handwritten. I knew her brack recipe had to be in the book so I called my sister and asked her to send me a copy. Seeing the photo of the page brought back a flood of memories – I sat and stared at it for quite a while before I eventually steeled myself to get started. It’s a three-day process as the fruit needs to steep in tea overnight first and then you need to let the finished cake rest overnight so that it will cut properly. I thought it would never be ready. But it was worth the wait. It was exactly as I remembered it – rich, dark, soft, comforting. With a mug of tea it was the big hug of home I was looking for.
In Ireland (and presumably other countries) it is possible to buy bags of dried “mixed fruit”, which typically contain sultanas, raisins, currants and citrus peel. As these mixed bags are not available in Lithuania I created my own mix of fruit using what I had in my pantry. I think any mix of dried fruit would work, though for authenticity it should contain a good proportion of sultanas, raisins or currants. There’s also no self-raising flour or baking powder (a mix of baking soda and cream of tartar) here so I just use plain flour and baking soda – the results are just as good.
I found that the original oven temperature of 180˚ C (355˚ F) was too hot for this cake – it started to char slightly on top. Perhaps ovens were not as hot back then. (They certainly were not fan-assisted.) I reduced the temperature to 160˚ C (320˚ F), resulting in a slightly longer cooking time. The final cake is wonderfully moist and juicy.
If you need the brack in a hurry you can reduce the steeping time to 2-3 hours and cut the cake once it has fully cooled and been removed from the tin. The three-day process is traditional, but far from essential.
150 g | 5 oz sultanas / golden raisins
100 g | 4 oz dried cranberries
90 g | 3 oz stoned dried dates, chopped
½ litre | 1 pint cold strong black tea, such as Irish Breakfast Tea or Ceylon Tea
170 g | 6 oz light brown sugar
1 large egg
340 g | 12 oz plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
- Pre-heat the oven to 180˚ C / 355˚ F (160˚ C / 320˚ F for fan ovens).
- Grease and line a 450 g (1 lb) loaf tin.
- Place the fruit in a large bowl and pour over the cold tea. Cover with cling film (saran wrap) and leave to steep in a cool place overnight, or for a minimum of 2 hours.
- In a large mixing bowl, food mixer or food processor, beat the egg and sugar until light and creamy.
- Add the flour, baking soda and any tea that has not been absorbed by the fruit and mix until smooth.
- Add the fruit to the mixture and gently fold with a wooden spoon to fully incorporate the fruit.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared tin. If adding trinkets such as a ring or coin, neatly fold these into a square of parchment paper, ensuring the item is well covered, then slot vertically into the uncooked cake, smoothing over the top with a knife or spatula. This will ensure the item fits in just one slice of cake when it comes to cutting.
- Bake for 1½ hours or until a clean skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out completely clean. If any cake mixture adheres to the skewer cook for a little longer, testing every time minutes. (Mine took 1¾ hours.)
- Allow the brack to cool in the tin, then transfer to an airtight container. Ideally, store for at least one day before cutting to ensure the brack cuts smoothly, without crumbling.
- Enjoy smothered with rich, creamy butter, ideally with a mug of tea.
*This song, sung here by the Black Family, really captures the nostalgia that colcannon can evoke among Irish people.