Saturday, April 30, 2011

tea loaf

I’m all for easy recipes.   Ones where I don’t have to think too much.  Ones where I can just throw it all in and get on with something else.  This Barm Brack (tea loaf) fits the bill nicely. 

And, if you are in a hurry, please scroll straight to the recipe.  I won’t mind.  I know how you feel. 

But for those of you who want to know what Barm Brack is, I’ll tell you what I know so far.  It may not be much, but it may be enough.  I do know that it is good.

As is often the case with older recipes, there is some discrepancy over the origin of the name. But the words yeast and bread and speckled appear regularly.  This is fitting, as Barm Brack is a traditional Irish tea bread, speckled with dried fruit.  Although, to be honest, there is no yeast in this one. 

The loaf was traditionally served at Hallowe’en and, in keeping with a night when superstition was elevated, small charms were hidden in the mixture to foretell the fortunes of those gathered around the table — a wedding ring meant impending marriage, a rag warned of a poor life ahead, a thimble was a sad portent of spinsterhood.   Choose carefully, my friend, and please do not choke.

You have nothing to worry about with this recipe.  No surprises, I promise.

The sultanas and dates can be substituted with dried fruit of your choice.  You may like to add spices and mixed peel.

I have used Earl Grey tea but it works well with regular tea.  The tea plumps up the sultanas and dates giving them their soft texture. 

This recipe was sent to me from my father (a retired chef).  Dad scribbled a note on the recipe (Bill is my Irish partner):

Bill will think he is back in Ireland when he tastes it!!

Barm Brack

350ml (12 fluid oz) hot, strong tea (use 3 teabags)
200g (7oz) soft brown sugar
175g (6oz) sultanas
175g (6oz) dates, chopped
285g (10oz) self-raising flour
1 egg, lightly beaten

Grease and line a 2lb loaf tin.

Put the tea, sugar and dried fruit in a bowl, stir to combine and leave overnight to soak. 

Mix the soaked fruit into the sieved flour, add the beaten egg and mix to combine.  Turn into the loaf tin and cover loosely with tin foil.

Bake in a moderate oven (180°C/350°F) for 1 hour 45 minutes.  Turn off the heat and leave to cool, with foil intact, in the oven.

When cold, cut in thick slices, butter generously and serve with a cup of tea.  But it also tastes good without the butter.

Barm Brack keeps well, but if it ever lasts long enough to become stale, it is very good toasted and buttered.

The loaf also freezes well – although I can’t say for certain, as it has never made it to the freezer in our house.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

filling the tartan tins

I suppose it will come as no surprise that I like shortbread.  After all, the biscuit that has graced tartan tins for a very long time did originate in Scotland.

I recall thick wedges of melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, dredged in sugar served at former Edinburgh institution, The Laigh Coffee House.  It was there that I discovered there is no easy way to eat shortbread without leaving a scattering of crumbs and sugar behind. 

More recently, I was fortunate enough to sample the best shortbread I have tasted since leaving Scotland.  Made by my friend’s father, (a Scot) and using only the basic ingredients of flour, butter, sugar and a pinch of salt, Jim’s shortbread was simply wonderful.  Sadly, Jim has passed on.  I have his recipe but I think I will keep it as a memento.  I don’t think I could match his.

For all the variations on shortbread I could have - and there are plenty - I prefer the “authentic” taste of classic shortbread.  A rich, crumbly, buttery finger or petticoat tail.  I love that description of the skirted wedge cut from the flat round of shortbread dough.  And yes, I know that the term may originate from the French petits cotés, (a pointed biscuit), but I am going with the flouncy petticoat version as it’s far more romantic.

That’s not to say I haven’t or wouldn’t try different flavours.  Shortbread is nothing if not versatile.  I’m tempted by shortbread studded with dark chocolate chunks – a millionaire’s chocolate chip cookie?  I’ve made blissful biscuits delicately flavoured with chopped rosemary or lavender.  I’m not averse to adding nuts or seeds.  It’s just that each time I make shortbread I tend to opt for the unadorned.  It’s how I remember it.

There’s versatility in the eating too.  Shortbread crumbled over berries and cream or ice cream, or served whole with custard-based desserts is divine.  Jamie Oliver has a delicious recipe where he sprinkles smashed shortbread over grilled strawberries, Pimm’s and vanilla ice cream, mmm…. bring back summer!  Shortbread is also perfect cut into heart or star shapes, popped in little cellophane bags and tied with pretty ribbons to present as a home-baked gift.

For this recipe, I normally use the rice flour, but as I didn't have any, I used semolina instead.  I like the grittiness it adds.   Cornflour, another substitute, gives it a more melt-in-the-mouth texture.  Some recipes include custard powder as an additional ingredient, which makes for heavenly, sweet and silky biscuits.  Experiment a little and find your own favourite.

200g slightly salted butter, softened
½ cup caster sugar
2 cups flour, sifted
¼ cup rice flour, sifted

Preheat oven to 160ºC. Grease and line a 20cm x 30cm baking tin with baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and creamy.  Sieve the flours into the mixture and gently work into the mixture.  Do not over-mix.

Press the dough into the baking tin so it is level all over.  Smooth the surface. With a sharp knife, score the dough into fingers (bars) about 3cm x 7cm.  Using the tines of a fork (that’s the pointy bits), prick each finger three times.  You can do this accurately so they all look the same or, like me, you can stab at them rather hastily as you just want to get to the eating part. 

Bake for about 50 minutes or until a sandy brown colour.  If the shortbread is browning too quickly, loosely cover with tin foil.  Remove from the oven and leave in the tin for about 10 minutes.  Re-cut the fingers while hot.  Place on a cake rack to cool.   When cool, dredge with caster sugar, or leave as is.