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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.

Irish Barnbrack |

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.

All Saints Day (Vėlinės), Lithuania |

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.

Mam's Barn Brack Recipe |


  • Servings: 12-16
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

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


  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180˚ C / 355˚ F (160˚ C / 320˚ F for fan ovens).
  2. Grease and line a 450 g (1 lb) loaf tin.
  3. 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.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, food mixer or food processor, beat the egg and sugar until light and creamy.
  5. Add the flour, baking soda and any tea that has not been absorbed by the fruit and mix until smooth.
  6. Add the fruit to the mixture and gently fold with a wooden spoon to fully incorporate the fruit.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.)
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Oh weren’t them the happy days when troubles we knew not
And our mothers made colcannon in the little skillet pot.

The Black Family |

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Irish Barnbrack |

Irish Barnbrack |

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. There is a song that goes “That old familiar feeling…” I think my Dad used to sing it or hum it many years ago. Anyway, you hit the nail on the head there June…sometimes when I pick up a vine of really fresh tomatoes and give them a little sniff, just to check their freshness and origin (organic of course because this only happens when they are organic)…anyway again…I get that absolute unique smell, fragrance, yes you could even say bouquet, that immediately transports me back to my home in Larkfield on a sunny summer’s morning. I would have been no more than 5 or 6 years of age and my Mum would ask me to run across the street to buy a bag of fresh tomatoes from our neighbour Mrs. O’Callaghan who lived on the sunny side of the street and had a glass-house in her back garden. Mrs O’Callaghan, a gentle elderly lady (or so I thought then but probably only in her 6o’s) would head off to pick the tomatoes directly from the vines. They cost one shilling for one Lbs. (that’s 3 cent for less than half a kilo!)…she even had a weighing scales with little brass weights. She would put them in a brown paper bag and sometimes, and only sometimes, she would give me a little white paper bag with ‘baby’ tomatoes. “They’re for yourself youngman” she’d say. When I got outside the house I’d open the little paper bag and give a little sniff…
    Thank you June for bringing me back there.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 16, 2015
    • What a lovely story – thanks Gary. I remember Mrs. O’Callaghan across the road. Nana used to send us over for something, but I can’t remember what. What a glorious treat it must have been for you to get a little bag of baby tomatoes all to yourself!


      October 16, 2015
  2. June, what a beautiful recipe, I can’t wait to try it. I’ll let you know how it comes out! I shall call on the Spirits of my Irish forebears to help me 🙂 More than that, ‘tho, I am touched by your memories of your dear Mam and Nana. I lost my own Mom 22 years ago. Isn’t it special, and wonderful, how we can remember such wonders form our childhoods. Your Mam would be so proud of you for carrying on what she taught you! I love your Blog, look forward to reading more about your life there, but also about Irish recipes, as that is part of my heritage also 🙂 All the best, Angela.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 16, 2015
    • Thanks for such a lovely comment, Angela. I find it fascinating how the whole process of cooking – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes – can trigger a long-forgotten memory. Sometimes you make food that is deliberately nostalgic, but sometimes it takes you completely by surprise. I love that.

      Liked by 1 person

      October 16, 2015
  3. Sorry your hunt for kale and green cabbage was less than fruitful. 😦 So interesting to learn what different regions offer/don’t offer in food items.

    The barnbrack looks really good. It *seems* to be similar to a Portuguese cake called Bolo de Familia (family cake). I might give your recipe a whirl. This look like something I’d like to have a slice of for breakfast!

    Liked by 1 person

    November 2, 2014
    • It sometimes surprises me what’s not available here. I wouldn’t expect to find anything quintessentially Irish, but cabbage is pretty basic. Shame. I haven’t tried Bolo de Familia but just looking at the photos it looks a bit “cakier” than the brack – I’d say it has more flour and less fruit. This brack is really moist – perfect with your morning coffee!

      Liked by 1 person

      November 2, 2014
  4. longchaps2 #

    When my sister first moved to Denmark from California she would often complain about the lack of vegetables at certain times of the year, an unheard of thing for us who live in the central valley where they produce mountains of vegetables year round. So, yeah, I hear your frustrations with the Kale. Your cake looks scrumptious however. Ummm!

    Liked by 1 person

    October 29, 2014
  5. What kind of country doesn’t have green cabbage?! Have to admit I never looked in Latvia 🙂
    Ah, brack brings back fond memories – though I’ve never heard of ‘googing’!

    Liked by 1 person

    October 29, 2014
    • Yeh, I think googing was a Wexford term. That’s all we ever called it. I tried Googling it and Google just kept telling me I spelled it wrong! I think it comes from the word “googy”, which is a slang word for eggs. Part of the tradition on Halloween was to go knocking from house to house looking for food, and as many people abstained from meat for the occasion eggs would have been the primary source of protein – hence they were going “egging” or “googing”. What did you call “trick or treating” out your way?


      October 29, 2014
      • Actually my mam used to call eggs gogies or something like that! Funny! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        October 29, 2014
  6. Gary #

    I going to give the Barnbrack a shot tonight…should be just right for Friday evening (Holloween)!!. Tried to make the Colcannan a few time…well twice actually…but it didn’t go down too well with my girls. I certainly got the proportions wrong…too muck Kale and not enough butter I suspect. It has just accurred to me that maybe I should have added some cream and a little salt also. Yeah, I think you should post the receipe asap!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    October 29, 2014
    • If you steep the fruit tonight and make it tomorrow it will be perfect for Friday, Gary. Despite the drawn-out process it’s a cinch to make. As for the colcannon, cream (or full-cream milk), butter and salt are absolute necessities!


      October 29, 2014
    • Gary #

      BTW…I made the Brack last night. Put it on the rack to cool…it last all of 20mins!!! Huge complement to you, Iris and ‘Man’ (Valentine?). Ok…I take some credit but all I did was follow the receipe! Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

      November 5, 2014
      • Gary #

        …that should of course have read ‘Mam’ (Valentine)? Was not sure if you were referring to Nana Molloy or Nana Valentine. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        November 5, 2014
      • Ah! I was just wondering about the “man” thing! Yes, it was your mam I was referring to. Not sure where the recipe came from but mam made it each year for as long as I can remember. It’s the only brack I’ve ever really liked – the ones in the shops didn’t seem “real” to me. I guess you love what you’ve grown up with. Glad it turned out well for you! Make it into a tradition now, each year, and the girls will be coming looking for “your” recipe in years to come! x


        November 5, 2014
  7. That’s very similar to the recipe I have from my Granny (Valentine), June. A lovely, moist brack with the fruit bursting with tea.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 29, 2014
    • I wonder did they share a recipe, Lyn, or if that was just the style at the time. I must say I don’t like the yeast bracks that tend to be in the shops now – they’re just not as moist and, as you say, bursting with tea.


      October 29, 2014
  8. I used to make colcannon (with cabbage) to celebrate our Irish heritage and we would all shout Death to the Red Hag! It was great fun tho we weren’t clear on the meaning. Looks as though you’ll be growing your own kale and cabbage next year. Sometime post your recipe for colcanon please. Love to try an authentic recipe with kale.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 29, 2014
    • Yeh, I’ll definitely be growing my own kale next year. It’s been years since I made colcannon so I’d need to make it again to be sure of my proportions before I posted. As soon as I can find a head of green cabbage!


      October 29, 2014

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