Wednesday, March 10, 2021

An Irish Country Barmbrack (Irish Fruit Cake)

If you've read any of the "Irish Country" novels by Patrick Taylor, you know how charming they are, a rare window into a specific time and place unlike any other. You also know the two main characters are no strangers to excellent food, prepared in large part by their housekeeper, Maureen "Kinky" Kincaid. Her good self, as well as her cooking, merited a collection of her recipes, An Irish Country Cookbook. After all, if Hercule Poirot can have an obituary, why shouldn't Kinky have a cookbook?

This traditional barmbrack, or "spotted bread," is typically made at Halloween, but since we all love being Irish for a day every March, I was keen to make it this spring. Heavy on the currants and raisins, with a bit of orange zest for freshness, this fruited cake is a little holiday all on its own!

A slice of Irish barmbrack on a wild strawberry plate.

Irish Barmbrack

2 cups dried fruits (I used currants and raisins)
1 cup brewed black tea
1/4 cup whiskey (see notes below)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon spice mix, optional (such as chai spice mix or pumpkin pie spice)
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
zest of one orange

In a large mixing bowl, combine dried fruits with tea and whiskey, cover tightly and let sit overnight.

When ready to make the next day, butter a 7- or 8-inch round baking dish (at least two inches deep), and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir together flour, baking powder, salt and spice mix (if using) in a medium bowl. Add sugar, egg, and orange zest to the fruit mixture, stir to combine completely, then add the flour mixture and blend gently until fully incorporated. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top with back of the spoon, and bake for 75-80 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out mostly clean (a few tender crumbs are ok). Let the cake cool completely, then store in an airtight container for up to one week at room temperature.

Currants and raisins soaking in tea and whiskey.

Kinky says to let the barmbrack sit a day before enjoying it, as this will allow the flavors to develop. It helps to bake the cake in a dish with its own lid, to make storing easy. The traditional way to eat barmbrack is toasted and slathered with (Irish) butter; it's also very good with softened cream cheese!

Other Irish-inspired treats to enjoy on St. Patrick's Day:
Orange-Currant Shortbread Buttons
Devil's Food Cupcakes with Baileys Buttercream Frosting
Chocolate-Lager Cake with Tangerine Dream Frosting

An Irish Country Cookbook by Patrick Taylor

Adapted from An Irish Country Cookbook by Patrick Taylor. If you don't want to use whiskey, just increase the amount of tea to 1 1/4 cups, and add in a splash of pure vanilla extract. The basic template of this recipe lends itself to many variations, so be sure to use your favorite flavor tea, dried fruits, and spices. If you use larger fruits like dried apricots, dates, or figs, simply dice or snip them into small pieces before soaking.