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.
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.
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.
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.
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.