Cake and Death: Wild Berry Barmbrack
Look outside for a moment. What do you see? I see the incredible beauty of changing leaves and fall colors, but I also see death. Plants wither with the first frosts, trees become bare and stark, and the lush greens that graced the landscape for the last few months fade to browns and golds. This is the season of aging and death, of transformations, of moving between worlds. We are surrounded by death, from the bright fire-red leaves that fall into the gutters to the loss of our summertime adventures or freedom. So many of us see death as a bad thing - an ending, a full-stop, a tragedy - that we try to cover up those associations with superficial celebrations or outright denial. But death is beautiful.
Death is an important part of the cycles we are part of and the dances we partake in. We celebrate birth and fertility and new life; it’s only natural that we learn to honor the darker side of this spinning wheel as well. No matter what your religious or spiritual beliefs are, there’s always a way to see death as a doorway instead of a dead end. If you believe in reincarnation or the afterlife or heaven, it’s simply a threshold to cross. If you are agnostic or atheist, you can instead see the beauty of energy passing from one being into a new environment. (My fear of death is tempered a bit by the idea that someday my body might nourish a strong tree, for example.) With death comes grief, too. We grieve those that we have lost. We grieve the things we didn’t get a chance to do. We grieve the familiar and comfortable things we’ve had to leave behind. It’s okay to grieve. It’s natural to. But it’s also important to see both sides of the coin of death. Just as we sometimes struggle with the ideas of fertility in our culture, we also repress ideas associated with death.
Perhaps that’s why so many are drawn to cover up the darker months of the year with celebrations that feel superficial or forced. I struggle with the way my culture often celebrates Halloween, for example, with vigorous consumption of alcohol. It’s not that I see anything inherently wrong with wanting to celebrate or even imbibing (as long as one does so responsibly); it’s more that the energy of these celebrations just doesn’t match how I am feeling this time of year or the signals I am receiving from the natural world. I tend to be far more likely to toss back the elderflower mead and run around like a wild sprite at the opposite side of the year in late spring or early summer. Now, I feel like reflection. I feel like remembrance.
Fall carries with it such a beautiful air of bittersweet nostalgia. It’s this time of year when we feel most homesick for other places we’ve lived or people we’ve been close to. We sigh and think about the beautiful changing leaves of our hometowns or college campuses, or the adventure of returning to school and meeting new friends and teachers. It’s also natural to think about those we have loved and lost. After all, many cultures all over the globe have celebrations in late October or early November that honor ancestors, family ties, and lost loved ones. Some of these are more somber and ceremonial; others are joyous celebrations of life. But across so many cultures and woven into so many tapestries is the continual thread of remembrance and honor.
Why, then, don’t we continue those legacies and strengthen our relationships with nature’s yearly cycles at the same time? No matter what celebrations you partake in this time of year, all can benefit from a little awareness and depth.
One tradition I particularly love this time of year is the Irish sweet yeasted bread called “Barmbrack.” The tradition of baking cakes to be used in ceremony or sacrifice goes back just about as far as agriculture itself does. Before the widespread use of leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder, sweet cakes were leavened with yeast and then enriched with eggs, butter, milk, and/or sweeteners. They were often filled with the sweet bounty of warmer days in the forms of dried or candied fruit. They played an important role in ritual celebrations and ceremonial feasts for centuries. According to Tamra Andrews, author of Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology:
“Ceremonial cakes, usually round (to mimic the sun?) were made by women. The cakes were made with the women’s hopes and desires for the coming year along with the best of what remained in their cupboards. Often a cake was made for feasting and another or a portion of the family cake was left for a goddess or taken to the field to bless the crops-to-be.” And later: “Agricultural peoples around the globe made offerings of cakes prepared from the grains and fruits that arose from the soil. The types of ingredients used to make these cakes contributed to their symbolism… All of these cakes had definitive links to the myths people embraced.”
Barmbrack is one such sweet yeasted cake, traditionally associated with Halloween in Ireland. The name comes from the English root of “Beorma” (fermented) and the Irish word “brac,” (speckled), indicating a yeasted bread studded with flavorful fruits and nuts. The fun didn’t end there, though - traditionally, little tokens wrapped in cloth or paper were baked into the bread as a form of divination. Different symbols meant different things for the finders; for example, a ring meant you’d soon be married, while a coin indicated riches or prosperity.
Barmbrack also speaks to other mid-fall traditions, such as setting out offerings for ancestors or spirits. Some spiritual traditions include hosting “dumb suppers;” that is, setting a place at your table for each departed loved one and eating in reflective silence. Traditionally, many of these feasts take place on a black-clothed table and symbolic foods (particularly those featuring apples, root vegetables, or wild game) are served on black dishes, illuminated only by candlelight. Some write notes to their deceased loved ones, while others simply sit in the silence, communicating with or remembering them.
Lastly, barmbrack appeals to what we tend to crave in mid-fall: tradition, comfort, warmth, and sweetness. Is there anything quite so cozy as a slice of warm sweet bread lathered with butter and eaten with a cup of hot tea? Is there any better way to showcase the flavorful dried fruits left over from summer’s bounties than studding a rich dough with them? This bread tastes absolutely amazing, at once both rich and light, and nice and moist from the dried fruits that bejewel it. While barmbrack is usually baked as a round loaf or in a loaf pan, my version dresses it up a little bit by using a bundt cake pan to take it from side dish to centerpiece. An optional dusting of goji berry powder gives it a gorgeous orange hue and slightly zingy flavor, while amaretto adds extra flavor and bring out the vivaciousness of dried apricots and candied orange peel. This dough is prepared in the traditional way, using yeast instead of baking powder. Make sure to give it plenty of time to rise properly as enriched doughs take longer than normal bread. (And be sure to plan ahead so your dried fruits can soak overnight and become nice and juicy!)
Orange Jewel Barmbrack
1 cup cooled strongly-brewed tea of choice
1/2 c. amaretto
1 c. chopped dried apricots
3/4 c. chopped candied orange peel
1/2 c. golden raisins
3 1/2 c. plain flour (450g)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. (1 sachet) dried yeast
4 Tbs. butter
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1 c. milk or almond millk
1 beaten egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond extract
a bit of melted butter, for greasing
blanched almonds, for decorating
1. Place the fruits in a bowl and cover with the tea and amaretto and let sit overnight to plumpen up. Strain, reserving the liquid.
2. Warm the milk just a little until it is tepid but not hot, then melt the butter into it. Add 1 Tbs. of the sugar and the yeast and stir gently. Stir in the egg.
3. Sift the spices with the flour into a bowl. Make a well in the center and pour the yeast mixture into it. Sprinkle a little flour over the liquid and leave it in a warm place for about 20 minutes or until the yeast starts to froth up.
4. Add in the reserved tea soaking liquid and the vanilla and almond extract and mix the whole lot into a dough. (Add a bit more flour or milk if needed to get a soft doughy consistency.) Turn it out into a floured borad, sprinkle with the sugar, raisins, currants, and chopped peel and knead them into the dough. This will make the dough quite wet, that’s okay.
5. Place the dough into a butter-greased large bowl, cover with cling wrap and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.
6. Knead it back again then shape into your greased bundt tin. (Make sure to really grease your bundt tin well using a non-stick cooking spray or paintbrush with oil or melted butter.) Brush the top with melted butter and cover until doubled in bulk again. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400F.
7. Bake for 40 mins. in a hot oven at 400F until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
8. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then gently turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Drizzle with the goji berry glaze (below) and decorate with blanched almonds.
Goji Berry Glaze:
This lovely light orange glaze adds just a hint of sweetness and a lovely color to your barmbrack
2 Tbs. Goji berry powder
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 Tbs. whiskey
about 1/4 c. milk or almond milk
1. Mix together the goji berry powder and powdered sugar. Stir in the whiskey and add a little milk, a teaspoon at a time, to make a thick consistency. Stir until smooth.
2. Gradually add more milk until your icing is a pourable consistency (about like white glue.) If you’d like a deeper orange color, add more goji berry powder.
Wishing you all peace and sweetness during this season of remembrance.
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