Tea Brack

I’ve learned that brack is a word, a word for a food that is somewhere between a cake and a quick bread.  It’s the shortened form of “barnbrack,” which, like the recipe itself, is given to us by the Irish.  In Irish, “bairghean” means cake of bread, and “breac” means speckled.  A brack is a kind of speckled-cake bread.
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Sometimes, you just have to take your inquiries to the old Oxford English Dictionary.  At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, the American Heritage dictionary was no help at all.  The internet also failed me,  although I did learn that bracken is a kind of fern.  And I was reminded that brackish is the sort of water that mangroves grow in.

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In 1772, General Charles Vallancy wrote in his “Essay on the Antiquity of the Irish Language,”

On St. Briget’s Eve every Farmer’s Wife in Ireland makes a Cake called bairein-breac.

St. Briget probably being St. Brigid, making St. Briget’s Eve January 31st, as St. Brigid’s day is February 1st, the first day of the Celtic spring.

In 1867, a decade or so after the end of the Irish famine, Patrick Kennedy spoke of barnbracks as one of “the varieties of the staff of life” in his The Banks of Boro:  A Chronicle of the County of Wexford.

And, in 1928, the February 3rd edition of Universe tells  us:

A loaf of curious, very sweet currant bread is made and sold for All Souls Day.  Even the poorest household manages to secure one of these Barn-bracks.

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This recipe is adapted from a recipe given to me by the lovely Gillian, my friend Nigel’s mother.  Some of her original measurements are referenced at the bottom.

 

Tea Brack

You will need:

  • 1 cup black raisins*
  • 1 cup sultanas, or golden raisins
  • freshly grated zest from 1 orange and one lemon
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 cups of freshly brewed black tea
  • one stick of butter at room temperature**
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, chopped into 1/2 cubes
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 1/2 cups self rising flour***
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice, or your favorite spice mix
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup orange brandy or whiskey****

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Put the raisins, zest, brown sugar, and black tea into a saucepan.  Stir until all the sugar has been dissolved.  Bring the mixture to a boil, and then remove from the heat.  Add the chopped apples  Allow the mixture to cool.  When the mixture has completely cooled, add the beaten egg.*****

Meanwhile, sift the flour.  Cream the flour, spices, and salt into the butter.  Add the walnuts to the dry mixture.

Add the tea mixture to the flour mixture.  Stir just until all the flour has been incorporated.  Immediately transfer the mixture into a greased 6 x 6 baking dish or pan.  Cook for 1:15-1:30, or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.

 

*alternative measurements:  8 oz., or 1/2 pound

**4 oz., or 1/2 cup

*** 1 pound

**** I used Pierre Ferrand Orange Curacao, and it was wonderful.

***** Alternatively, if you’re a little short of time, you can temper the egg with the hot liquid.  Stir a teaspoon of the liquid into the beaten egg until the temperature of the egg has risen.  Continue this process until the egg is the same temperature as the mixture, then stir it in.

Tarte Citron, the Champagne of Desserts

When I was in middle school, my mother, my sister, and I went on a road trip. I don’t remember where we were going or where we were coming from, but I remember a sign on an empty country highway that announced a roadside book sale coming up in one mile.

“Mom, can we stop? Plllleeeaaasse?”

“Oh, all right.”

On this day I had my very first cookbook buying spree. I bought six cookbooks, and one of them was De Gustibus Presents: French Cooking for the Home. Twelve different French chefs create 12 different menus for 12 different occasions.

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I have cooked many of the recipes over the years. I made Jacques Pepin’s Scallopine of Turkey Breast with Morel and Cognac Sauce for Thanksgiving of 2001, the one year anniversary of my parents’ divorce. My father, the fryer/roaster/briner/experimenter of the turkey, was gone. I took advantage of the food power vacuum and subjected my family to a three course meal taken from the pages of French Cooking for the Home. Looking over my notes from 13 years ago, I remember my horror at the cost of the ingredients. It would still be quite a few years before I began the process of learning how to appreciate simplicity in cooking and life over elaborate fanfare.

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I made the Wild Mushroom Crepes for my mom’s birthday the following year. My future stepfahter and stepsisters were there for that meal, one of the last I cooked in the house I grew up in. I made a modified version of the Thin Apple Tart for paying customers at the bagel shop. And I made the Christian Delouvrier’s Tarte Citron for extra credit in my French 102 class in college. I remember sitting around the table in my apartment with my partner and squeezing lemon after lemon after lemon. My life smelled like lemons for at least a month after making this tart. I made it again last week as part of a friend’s successful green card quest celebration. And this time around, I used a juicer.

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My tart.

 

Here’s what the books author has to say about this recipe:

This is a perfectly sublime ending to a rich, complex dinner. Once assembled, the tart requires only a minute under the broiler and then an hour to set, making it a breeze to prepare.

With a juicer, it really is a breeze to prepare. Without one, the one cup of fresh lemon juice becomes a bit like one of Psyche’s more boring challenges. Like separating different legumes into piles.

The first time around, I remember Madame Roland eating the tart and saying, “Oh la la, just like in la France!” and I gave a little bow for the class. For my more recent tart, one of the revelers declared it the champagne of desserts. A slightly bigger bow. Incidentally, a brut sparkler would be the perfect thing to drink with the tarte citron.

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Tom Eckerle’s sexy lemon tart photograph from the book.

 

Lemon Tart

You will need:

½ pound frozen puff pastry, thawed

1 cup fresh lemon juice (about six lemons)

6 large eggs

5 large egg yolks

1 cup granulated sugar

15 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. On a light floured surface, roll out the pastry about 1/8 inch thick into a circle approximately 12 inches around. Transfer the pastry to the tart pan. Gently fit the pastry into the pan, and cut away any excess with a sharp knife. Prick the bottom of the pastry with a fork. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven. Preheat the broiler.

In the top half of a double boiler, combine the lemon juice, eggs, egg yolks, and sugar. Set over simmering water. Beat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture is very thick and clings to the beater. *

Remove from the heat. Using a whisk, whisk in the butter a little at a time.** Pour the custard into the partially baked pastry shell. Place under the double broiler for 1 minute. LITERALLY 60 SECONDS. DON’T MESS AROUND WITH THE DOUBLE BROILER. YOU WILL GET BURNED. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour before serving.

Garnish with raspberries before serving, if you so wish. Or strawberries, or blackberries. Or fresh basil or mint.

*I made the custard ahead of time and kept it in the fridge for overnight for convenience purposes. It worked out wonderfully, so this is an option.

**Since I forgot this step and accidentally included the butter in the double boiler with the rest of the ingredients, I’m skeptical about how necessary this is.

Adapted from French Cooking for the Home.