Time to Celebrate Samhain

The ancient Celtic harvest feast called Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year. It’s celebrated on October 31-November 1, which is nearly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It was suggested in the late nineteenth century that it was the “Celtic New Year,” and over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ Days merged to create our modern celebration of Halloween. Several foods are traditionally eaten in Ireland at this time, especially Barmbrack (bairn breac), a yeast fruit bread. According to tradition, hidden in the Halloween Barmbrack were tokens to foretell the future — a ring for the bride-to- be, a thimble for the one who would never marry, and a small piece of cloth indicating the one who would be poor. Fortune-telling aside, Barmbrack is delicious anytime of the year, but is most popular in the autumn. Serve it spread with butter and toast “Happy Halloween” (oíche shamhna shona duit)! You’ll find this and other delicious fruit bread recipes in my cookbooks. Order signed copies at  

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2 cups dried fruit such as raisins, sultanas, and currants

1 heaping tablespoon candied mixed peel

2 cups strong black tea

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoon sugar

1 (1/4-ounce) package rapid rise active dried yeast (see Note)

4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

1 cup milk

1 large egg, beaten

Softened butter, for serving

1. In a medium bowl, combine fruit, mixed peel and tea; soak overnight.

2. In a large bowl, combine flour, nutmeg, salt, sugar and yeast. With a pastry cutter or your fingers, work in butter until it resembles coarse crumbs.

3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat milk to 120°F. Beat egg into milk; stir into dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Turn dough out onto a floured work surface; knead for 5 to 6 minutes, or until dough is smooth.

4. Drain fruit; knead it into the dough. Transfer dough to a lightly greased bowl. Cover with a clean cloth; let rest for 10 minutes.

5. Transfer dough to a greased 8-inch round pan; cover. Let dough rise again for 30 to 45 minutes, or until doubled in size.

6. Preheat oven to 400° F. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until top is brown and a skewer inserted into center comes out clean. Remove from oven; let cool completely before cutting into slices. Serve spread with butter.

            Note: Rapid rise yeast is mixed directly into dry ingredients. It replaces the first rise in two-rise recipes.



            Similar in flavor to Barmbrack, this fruity loaf requires no yeast!

16 ounces (about 4 cups) mixed dried fruit (raisins, golden raisins, chopped dates, chopped apricots)

1/4 cup candied mixed peel

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4cup chopped pecans

1 teaspoon ground ginger or 1 tablespoon chopped candied ginger

1 teaspoon Mixed Spice* or pumpkin pie spice

1 1/4 cup cold black tea

1 egg, beaten

1 cup packed light brown sugar

2 cups self-rising flour

Softened butter, for spreading

1. In a large bowl, combine fruit, nuts, spices and tea. Soak for 3 hours, or until tea is absorbed. 

2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 9-inch loaf pan with baking spray with flour.

3. Stir egg, sugar and flour into fruit mixture; mix until well combined. Transfer to prepared pan.

4. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until top is golden and a skewer inserted into center comes out clean.

5. Remove from oven; let cool in pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes. Remove bread from pan; let cool completely before slicing. Serve spread with butter.

*To make Mixed Spice, in a small bowl, combine, 1 tablespoon ground allspice, 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg, 2 teaspoons ground mace, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, and 1 teaspoon ground ginger. Stir to blend; store in a sealed jar.

 Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page expands this year to “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work, or to order a signed cookbook, visit