When you’ve had enough of the ‘when is bread a cake?’ discussion, bake brack. It is as good as a cake but you can slice and butter it, and have it with cheese.
What is brack?
Brack, or barmbrack (from Gaelic bairín breac meaning ‘speckled loaf’) is a loaf cake albeit not very sweet, with more dried fruit in it than there is crumb. ’Speckled’ is a serious understatement.
It is also the one and only teacake. Ignore the yeast-leavened raisin buns that the English call ‘teacakes’, disregard the weird marshmallow confections coated in chocolate that are the Scottish version of the thing, and even forget Yotam Ottolenghi’s interpretation. Brack is the true teacake. It’s made with tea.
I found Nigel Slater’s recipe in The Guardian and I was not quite sure what to expect. A cake with no fat in it whatsoever which isn’t a continental sponge is very rare. The amount of apricots and sultanas trumped even my dear late mother-in-law’s generous hand with fruit in a fruitcake and I wasn’t too sure about the tea.
Versions of brack
More research showed me that there is also a yeasted version of brack, thus making it more like a proper loaf of bread. Many recipes instruct to soak the dried fruit in the tea for several hours.
Others use cider or whisky instead of tea, but who in their right mind would waste good whisky by putting it into a cake? Certainly not anyone Irish, so I decided to stick with tea, and I liked Nigel’s bish-bash-no-soaking approach.
I’ve seen brack being called ‘Irish panettone’ when made with yeast but that is taking it a little too far in my view. Panettone is light, fluffy, sourdough-raised and laboriously fashioned. Brack, however delightful, is to it like homebrew to champagne, with no disrespect to dedicated and skilful amateur beer-makers.
What does brack taste like?
Apart from being one and only true teacake, brack also genuinely deserves to be called ‘bread’ instead of cake, as it can be happily sliced, buttered and eaten with a chunk of cheese. Eat your heart out, banana bread!
It is dense, obviously, what with all those apricots and raisins, but not stodgy as there is no fat in it. It is the perfect article for breakfast, even for people who shudder when hearing about cake for breakfast.
It is even more gorgeous lightly toasted, should you let it sit and get dry for long enough.
I’ve expressed my opinion above regarding the choice of liquid used in brack, but feel free to experiment with whisky for a boozy bread, Earl Grey for a posh one or just water if you prefer things plain.
Nigel certainly likes his apricots and I do too, but if raisins and currants are more your thing (or it’s what you have in the cupboard), replace apricots and raisins with those or something else again: figs, prunes, apples. As long as the loaf is stuffed with the 300g of fruit, you can’t go wrong.
Walnuts can be swapped for different nuts or almonds. And if you like, add some glace cherries and/or candied citrus peel, for a spot of indulgence.
More cake-or-bread recipes
The classic example already mentioned is banana bread, come into its own during the first lockdowns when everyone was baking it.
Pumpkin bread, spiced with cinnamon and cloves, with walnuts and cranberries, is more cakey than bready in my opinion but I’m happy to have it for breakfast.
Likewise, coconut loaf: super easy, quick to make and very tasty, made with shredded coconut flakes.
More dried fruit recipes
Christmas fruitcake, my version: no heavy icing, no marzipan layer, only delicious sponge batter and lots of mixed chopped fruit.
This cake is chocolate flavoured and it has a topping made from mixed dried fruit salad: midnight cake with fruit salad.
Homemade oatmeal and dried fruit bars are perfect for breakfast or as a mid-morning snack when it's just a bit too early for lunch.