Barm Brack: Information & 2 Recipes

Carolyn’s Online Magazine





Oíche Shamhna (Irish Gaelic)/Halloween Song (English)

[sing to the tune of Frere Jacques]


Oíche Shamhna (Irish Gaelic)

Oíche Shamhna, Oíche Shamhna,

Báirín, breac, báirín breac,

Úlla is cnónna, úlla is cnónna,

Is maith liom iad, is maith liom iad.


Halloween Song (English)

 Halloween, Halloween,

Barmbrack, barmbrack,

Apples and nuts, apples and nuts,

I like them, I like them

Barm brack.

What is it?

Barm brack, a.k.a., báirín breac, is a traditional Irish tea bread, a raised fruit bread that is lightly sweet and studded with raisins, candied citrus peel, currants, sultanas (yellow raisins), and bits of other dried fruit. It’s served toasted and generously buttered, accompanied by a cup of tea.

Maria superintended the distribution of the barmbrack

and saw that every woman got her four slices.

—Dubliners, James Joyce


There’s some confusion about the correct name for this fruit-filled tea bread. The undisputed part of the name, “brack,” comes from the Irish breac, meaning bread, or speckled (the speckles being the sultanas and currants), according to different sources. Some persons claim barm brack means little speckled cake.

Barm, the yeasty foam that rises to the top of beer and other alcoholic beverages as they ferment, was once used to leaven bread. Thus, it became a latter-day Irish synonym for baker’s yeast—leading to the bread’s first name, barm. Today some barm brack recipes are leavened with baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast—thus another possible name for this tea bread could be barn brack, barn perhaps derived from the Irish bair in (or bairgin), an obscure word for loaf.

However barm brack is made, the raisins and other dried fruits in its recipe are usually prepared by being soaked in hot tea until they are plump and rehydrated, giving them a uniquely soft character in the finished bread.


Baked inside barm brack are a variety of small tokens. Thus, the Irish custom of family and friends gathering to eat barm brack and tea on Sanhain (or Hallowe’en) was a fortune-telling ritual. Each person had eager or fearful expectations about what token would be hidden in their slice. Each token had a meaning for the future:

  • a gold ring (predicting impending marriage, within the year)
  • a button or thimble (another year of spinsterhood or bachelorhood)
  • a coin (a fortuitous omen presaging wealth—good things, hopefully riches, were on the way)
  • a rag or a dried pea (for poverty or bad luck in the coming year)
  • a matchstick (a stick to beat one’s wife, eg. an abusive spouse)

Today, bakers usually wrap the tokens in waxed paper or cloth to lessen the possibility that they will be accidentally ingested, thereby provoking a different prognosis altogether.

(What do you really know about Hallowe’en?

Take the quiz @ A Quiz: Hallowe’en’s Unfamiliar Facts)


BARM BREAD (recipe 1)

Makes 2 loaves

  • 1 tbsp dried yeast
  • 1 ½ cup/300ml lukewarm water
  • 2 oz/ 50g + 1 extra tsp sugar for yeast
  • 1 lb / 450g all purpose/plain flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 oz/50g butter
  • 6 oz/ 175g raisins
  • 2 oz/ 50g mixed candied peel
  • 2 oz/ 50g sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten


  • Place the yeast in the lukewarm water, add the tsp of sugar, stir and leave to one side.
  • Put the flour into a large roomy, baking bowl, add the butter and salt and using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour to form sand-like crumbs. Work quickly to prevent the butter becoming too warm.
  • Add the peel, raisins and 2 oz of sugar to the flour mixture and stir. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add the beaten eggs and the yeast mixture. Work the mixture together to form a soft dough.Knead the dough on a floured work top for 10 minutes until smooth and pliable. Place the dough back into the bowl. Cover with a clean tea cloth and leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size (about 1 hour).
  • Return the dough to the worktop, divide in 2, knead each half for another few minutes then form into a round approx 7″/20cm. Place on a greased baking sheet and leave to rise for another hour. Heat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6 after the second kneading of the dough
  • Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, until golden brown.



Yield: 1 loaf


  • Two ¼-oz/7-g packets active dry yeast
  • 6 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4½ cups/450 g flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 cup/150 g sultanas (golden raisins)
  • 1 cup/150 g dried currants
  • ½ cup/40 g candied orange peel or lemon peel (or a combination), finely chopped


Put the yeast and 1 Tbsp of the sugar into a medium bowl and gradually stir in 2 cups of warm water (about 100°F/40°C). Set aside for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture becomes frothy.

Meanwhile, rub the butter into the flour in a large bowl until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Stir in 4 Tbsp of the sugar, the ginger, nutmeg, salt, sultanas, currants, and candied peel. Make a well in the center, pour in the yeast mixture, and stir the liquid into the flour in a spiral motion, from the middle outward, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead, dusting with more flour as needed, until elastic and just slightly sticky, about 5 minutes. Put the dough into a large greased bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and set aside in a warm place for about 1 hour, until dough has doubled in size.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface again and knead lightly for a minute or two, then shape it into a large round or oval and put it on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C (Gas Mark 8).

Bake the bread for 15 minutes. Tent with foil, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F/175°C (Gas Mark 4) and bake about 40 minutes more, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Dissolve the remaining 1 Tbsp of sugar in 1 Tbsp of hot water and brush over the loaf. Return the loaf to oven for 5 to 7 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Nutritional Information







About carolyncholland

In several if my nine lives I have been a medical lab technician and a human service worker specializing in child day care, adoptions and family abuse. Currently I am a photo/journalist/writer working on a novel and a short story. My general writings can be viewed at My novel site is
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One Response to Barm Brack: Information & 2 Recipes

  1. Pingback: A Quiz: Hallowe’en’s Unfamiliar Facts | Carolyn's Online Magazine

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