Some recipes call to me with a siren song, the way a particularly dangerous stretch of white water rapids might call to an experienced rafter, who, even knowing that it might kill him, gets into the canoe anyway, and is soon fighting for his life in the churning foam and rocks. Such a call for me came from a recipe for Bara Brith Tea Bread, which I came across in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of British Cooking, published in London, England. Bara Brith, which means “speckled bread,” in Welsh, is a tea bread made with dried fruits, brown sugar, and cold tea, and somehow sounded like the most cozy sort of bread I could imagine. I could see Jim and I sitting by an imaginary peat fire with a snack of buttered Bara Brith and a pot of Earl Grey, perhaps regaling each other with Celtic song. More prosaically and more likely, we could eat it while watching the Cubs on TV.
In the back of my mind, though, I felt a qualm. I’ve found that British and European cookbooks edited for American consumption can be incredibly treacherous. Somehow in the editing and translation, ingredients get lost, or they say “four” when they mean “two,” and things like that. But the recipe called to me, and, sure enough, soon I was going down the tubes, as the quantity of tea and egg called for in the recipe proved no match to the four cups of flour, which I later realized should have been two. I chucked in a cup of milk, then, in desperation, some brandy, and threw it all in the oven, sat down and wiped the sweat from my brow, and then, what can I say, the bread was delicious! Moist and fruity, it was great with a cup of tea, and perfect for the lunch bag.
Unwilling to try to reconstruct this recipe/train wreck, I searched through my recipe clippings and came across an almost identical Bara Brith recipe from Gourmet Magazine. Baking it was much easier on my nerves, and it tasted just as good. Here it is!
Makes one loaf
7 oz. bag of Sun-Maid Fruit Bits
1 cup brewed tea
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon dry Sherry or brandy
1 large egg, beaten
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix the first four ingredients in a bowl and set aside. (Some recipes call for letting the mixture stand overnight, but I’ve tried it both ways, and I haven’t found that it makes an appreciable difference.)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9×5-inch Pyrex loaf pan. Cut a piece of waxed paper to fit the pan and smooth into the pan. Grease with shortening again. Pour the beaten egg into the wet mixture and stir. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Pour in fruit mixture and stir until just blended. Pour into prepared pan and bake until bread begins to pull away from the pan sides and springs back when touched lightly in the center, about 50 minutes. Cool bread in pan for about 10 minutes; turn out and cool completely. This can be wrapped in foil and kept at cool room temperature for up to a week.
Notes: The original recipe called for 1 cup currants, 1 cup golden raisins, and 3/4 cup raisins, but I found it much more economical to use one package of Fruit Bits. Also, I baked the bread in a 8 x 4″ loaf pan for a more dramatic rise, and had to bake it a bit longer than the recipe called for. It might not look quite as pretty, but in the future I will go with the 9 x 5-inch pan, as the bread will bake more evenly. It’s also been noted that some bakers replace the tea entirely with whiskey blended with a little water. Also, some recipes call for spices, such as “apple pie spice” or cinnamon. The spicing seems unnecessary to me: this bread is all about the fruitiness.
Lastly, Americans tend to like soft, highly-sweetened baked items, and Bara Brith is resolutely British, being moist, firm, and fruity. It’s made to be buttered and eaten with a cup of tea as a snack. At any rate, it’s quite delicious, and I hope you give it a try.