Ireland has many traditional bakes; many originated in pagan times and were later influenced by the Catholic church to honour ancestors or to ward off evil spirits. Halloween dates back over 2,000 years; ancient druids recognised the end of the harvest season by lighting bonfires and celebrating in costumes made from animal skins. ‘Samhain’, translated as ‘summer’s end’, was traditionally celebrated on 1st November and marked this time of feasting. Food was prepared for the celebration, while leftovers were set aside for ancestors. The tradition of feasting on treats is, of course, still very much alive today, and some of the ancient Irish bakes have become staple Halloween fare.
Barmbrack, also known as speckled cake, is a fruit bread and perhaps the best-known Halloween bake. The word ‘barm’ comes from the English word, ‘beorma’, meaning a yeasty, fermented liquor. Brack comes from the Irish word, ‘brac’ meaning speckled — this is due to the dried fruit and candied peel inside the bake. This is traditionally made by soaking dried fruit in tea, then adding it to a mix of flour, yeast, sugar, eggs and spices. A variety of tokens were traditionally baked into the bread, which was then evenly sliced and served. What you got in your slice was a glimpse into your future: a pea meant you wouldn’t marry over the next year; a matchstick warned of an unhappy marriage; a ring meant you would marry within the year; and a coin represented great wealth. Nowadays, a ring is still often baked into the brack to maintain the tradition.
These small spiced cakes, tarts or biscuits are baked in the shape of a cross and topped with raisins or currants. These were often referred to as ‘souls’, as the poor or ‘soulers’ would go from door to door reciting prayers and begging for these cakes, an early example of ‘trick or treating’. These cakes were often made and left out as an offering to the spirits.
This was traditionally made from a mix of ground oats, sugar, water or milk. Once the ingredients were combined, the dough was turned out onto a work surface and left to harden. It was then cut into squares and cooked on a griddle pan. In ancient times, it was tradition for people to eat the oaten cakes and pray that their crops may be blessed.
This potato-based dish is commonly eaten in the north midlands of Ireland. The Irish word ‘bacstai’ is from the word ‘bocht’, meaning poor; this is why the boxty was sometimes referred to as the ‘bread of the poor’. There are three main variants of boxty: pancake boxty is cooked in a hot pan and sliced into triangles; loaf boxty is baked in a loaf tin in the oven; and boiled boxty is shaped like a dumpling and is boiled to hold its shape. One of the most popular versions of the bread is made by grating raw potato and straining it to remove most of the starch. The potato is then combined with flour, milk, egg and baking powder and fried on a griddle pan. The old saying went, “Boxty on the griddle, boxty on the pan; if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get a man!”
Soda bread has been an Irish speciality since the late 19th century. It is made with a basic mixture of flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk, but most people have their own adaptation of the recipe. The bread is shaped into a high round, then a cross is traditionally cut into the top of the loaf to ward off evil spirits and protect the home — this explains why it was a common bake on All Hallows’ Eve!
While these recipes have been adapted and modernised over the years, many of the traditions remain. Try one this year to have a real Irish treat, or get creative and make your own Halloween bake! Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh!