Irish Tea Cake
Irish tea cake surely epitomizes traditional Irish baking, and indeed Irish dishes generally. Why so? Its simplicity. Quick and easy to make, this Irish cake is yet another no-nonsense-abiding creature from fair old Erin’s Isle – and even simpler than Irish apple cake.
Irish tea cake, or Barmbrack, is also up there in the popularity stakes among the global Irish community. Alongside that most (in)famous unleavened bread recipe. And just as with the fabled Irish soda bread, every blogger to ever post the this savory quick bread recipe has generously unveiled to you the ‘true’, ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ version. So it is too with the recipe for this Irish cake: big on overlaps, sensational insights into the mystical realm of the Irish, their devotion to witch cake, and redundant insider tips.
And our recipe is no different.
We hereby present to you the truerealauthenicalest version of this Irish dessert ever to grace a web page.
And before we head off on an exploration of the most quintessential Samhain recipe, perhaps it’d be useful to know how to pronounce Samhain. We already gave a bit of an lesson on this in our article on the crossover of pagan rituals and modern day Halloween, but it’s useful to explain it here, too. If are privileged enough to be among the 0.001% (we did the math) of the world’s population with at least a cursory knowledge of Irish, scipeáil ar aghaidh.
The correct Samhain pronunciation is Sau-En. If you think some Irish food imagery might help lock it in, try thinking of a pretty female specimen of cherished Irish bacon. Oblivious to her fate and sated to the brim, with dusk descending all around, the sow saunters from the quiet country yard, turning in for the night.
How to pronounce Samhain isn’t among the most requested Irish terms, though. In the scheme of things, it’s a hard one to ‘make a complete hames of’ (a beautiful not-Irish, but not-English, expression from Hiberno Ireland). However, as the Samhain rituals pick up pace, we daresay some visitors will indeed be making a hames of wishing people a Happy Halloween in Ireland. But give it a shot.
To wish someone Happy Halloween in Irish, you say:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Duit (roughly transliterated as EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gwit).
Or, if you’re addressing more than one person, you say:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh (roughly EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gweave).
Irish tea cake divination
Irish tea cake is not only as smooth and sweet on the tongue as the proud language of the Gaels, it’s also quite a functional quick bread. This is because it played a particular role in pagan rituals of days gone by, as a kind of divination tool for seeing into the future. For this reason, these delicious Irish cakes were kind of pagan symbols traditionally baked for Samhain rituals. Or Halloween rituals, if you like, as, for the layman at least, Samhain and Halloween are essentially the same Celtic festival.
Halloween in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and other parts of the Celtic Empire still sees this witch cake being used to play out these pagan rituals. A family gathers in sacred celebration, and munches on Barmbrack to see what the coming year shall bring for each of its members.
Such food divination is prominent in Irish food traditions, but of course appears elsewhere, with several Slavic countries having a similar version of the Irish tea cake game. A coin is backed into a loaf of Serbian bread on Orthodox Christmas and whoever finds it in their slice is sure to have great luck in the year ahead.
And in their case, it’s usually true, with the lucky coin bringing an instant increase in fortunes – the head of the household is forced to buy back the coin if the whole family is to fare well. Depending on their level of savvy, the finder can often force lucrative concessions from the boss. Who says fortune telling doesn’t work?
Pagan rituals live on
Equally pagan in origin, as part of the Celtic festival for the late harvest, Samhain rituals marked the closing of the bright half of the year and the beginning of the dark half. And the harvest cycle opened by Lúnasa now drew to a close. As such it was an important occasion for remembering the dead and appeasing the spirits, with the help of various pagan symbols, delicious Irish baking and offerings of poitin. Whilst all the while reflecting on the season past and anticipating what (mis)fortunes the future may bring.
And what better way than to have your Irish tea cake do the predicting for you?
As the family prepared for the Celtic festival ahead, the bean an tí (lady of the house) whipped up various Samhain recipes. Kind of edible pagan symbols to help along proceedings. Baking up a traditional witch cake of tea and dried fruit, she worked into the mix various items signifying what the respective recipients could hope for from the year ahead. If you found the coin in your slice, you would be wealthy, finding the ring meant marriage: the Celts played with their food!
Samhain rituals on the potato farm
Ireland of bygone years was decidedly too close for comfort. An island where men thought of their nearest and dearest in terms of potato yield, and of their women in terms of child output.
So, in these sprawling, human-intense families the Irish tended toward, this witch cake part of the Samhain ritual often turned into a kind of Russian roulette. Only with an increasing number of empty chambers rather than bullets.
Because do the math, it’s not easy for a family of sixteen, all symbolically breaking from the same bread, to each have their fortune told. Let alone receive one of the positive omens.
Envision it: siblings eagerly awaiting for the slices to be served out. Samhain decorations slung up in the background. Eyeing each other, as this enchanted Irish cake is swiftly severed and the search for trinkets begins in earnest. Each willing that they will be the one who has the luckiest of lucks this time around.
Irish food traditions hurt!
Although many families still play out this Samhain ritual, the outcome is of course not taken so seriously these days. But in a Celtic society where superstition reigned, finding the worst of these pseudo pagan symbols could surely make or break you. Especially considering there were also bogey prizes included in the mix.
What’s more, with true Irish “caution” (what the rest of the world generally indicates as something called ‘skepticism’), the Samhain tea cake actually often contained more of these trapdoor banana skin snakes than not!
A pea meant the eater wouldn’t marry that year, a stick that they would marry unhappily. And a thimble saw you never marrying at all, but instead staying at home to spinster away your life force, tear-collecting mugs of hallowed porter beer your only solace.
Harsh, but finding a piece of cloth was arguably worse, as this was a bogey prize that assured you would be dished out nothing but bad luck that year, or at the very least be poor for every single one of its 365.
A medallion was also sometimes included and meant becoming a member of the clergy, but one imagines this was added later on. Shoring up breaches in such pagan symbols to Christian trinkets conversion of Celtic traditions, and the seamless (ahem) glossing of the pagan rituals that made up Celtic festivals.
A Christianizing of these food pagan symbols takes on an even skewier skew if you are to believe theories put forward by several archaeologists of the Celtic era. These esteemed academics have suggested that games such as that of the Barmbrack ritual may have been used to decide who was to be ritually sacrificed.
Don’t choke on those crumbs, you’re needed in the yard!
Parlor game historians are still debating over whether to retroactively put in place tiebreaker rules for when someone got more than one trinket in their slice – or all of them, if the mixing was horribly one-sided. And a string of modern-day tribunals have uncovered widespread corruption at the heart of several prominent Irish families.
What can we say? As with most things, you wanted to get things done, you talked to the lady of the house. A complimented apron here, an extra mmm at her Irish potato soup there, it’s human nature to grease the bread tin wheels.
Irish tea cake recipe
The best tea cake recipe will always produce an adequately moist end product. Irish tea cake may straddle the boundary between cake and bread, but moisture is a mainstay.
Renditions run to super sweet all-out Irish desserts, with citrus zest and all manner of sundries chucked in, topped with honey and treats. Whilst on the other end of the spectrum sits the more traditional Irish tea cake, the type you can eat six slices of and still taste your taste buds.
One the most popular Samhain recipes, in this incarnation it’s a kind of an upbeat bread you eat with a dollop of butter atop, and a cuppa in hand.
Our take on this Irish cake-cum-bread veers more towards the traditional Samhain recipes, with less sugar than most and but a narrow range of spices. But like traditional Irish dinner recipes, Irish baking can be quite flexible so, as always, get creative with it.
Ingredients for Irish Tea Cake
Makes one traditional Halloween loaf (with fortune-telling capabilities)
- 14 oz (400 g) Strong Bread Flour
- 2 cups (500 ml) Black Tea (Irish breakfast or similar)
- 2 cups (350 g) Dried Fruits (raisins, currants and the like)
- 1 packet (¼ oz / 7 g) Dry Yeast
- 3 Tbsp (40 g) Caster Sugar
- 1 cup (250 ml) Milk
- ½ stick (70 g) Unsalted Butter
- 1 Egg
- [A splash of Whiskey]
- Pinches of Cinnamon, Nutmeg, crushed Cloves, Salt
- 1 Ring, Coin, Pea, Stick, etc. (Irish food traditions explained above)
- Make the Tea, then Soak your Dried Fruits in it overnight (or at least for a few hours). Splashes of Vanilla Extract and Irish liquor can be thrown in, too. Whiskey oils the recipe up nicely; if you’re making this Irish tea cake for children, consider adjusting the measures (in accordance with nationality perhaps).
- Mix the Flour, Sugar, Spices, and the Yeast in a Bowl. Pour the Milk and Egg into another bowl. Melt the Butter and Add it to this second bowl. Give the mix a quick to break up the egg.
- Make a dimple in the dry mix and Pour in the wet stuff. Stir well until you have a nice, wet consistency. Now Knead the mixture for a few minutes. You can also use an electric mixer for this.
- Drain the Dried Fruits and work them into the dough, a handful at a time. Give the handfuls a little squeeze each time you take from the bowl, ridding them of excess liquid.
- Place the dough in a Lined Bread Tin. Close your eyes and insert fortune-telling trinkets of choice into all that lovely Irish tea cake stickiness
- Cover the bread tin with cling film or cloth, then Leave in a warm environment for about an hour, so the yeast can do its inflating trick. You’ll know the magic is done when the dough has puffed up and become firmer in texture.
- Place in an Oven preheated to 375 °F / 190 °C / Gas Mark 5, on a Middle Shelf. Bake for 40 minutes.
- Remove from oven and leave to cool on a Wire Rack. Once cooled, pack tight in Greaseproof Paper (or plastic wrap/aluminium foil) and Leave for at least a day, two if you can resist the temptation to tuck in.
Serve your witch cake with a coven-convincing cackle, a full moon in the sky and smeared in butter. Perhaps alongside a steaming glass of original Irish coffee or similar.