Tricks and treats

HALLOWEEN was a spooky time when I was child, we heard all about the banshee. People told ghost stories and we ate barmbrack and colcannon. It was all about fortune telling and divination.

There was lots of apple-bobbing and I also remember a game that involved three saucers, one held water, the second some soil, the third a ring. One after another we were blindfolded; when one touched a saucer, fingers in the water meant you were going on a journey overseas, the ring meant you would be married within the year and the clay was very bad news, it indicated that you would meet a sticky end before the year “was out”.

The contents of the barmbrack also held similar clues to one’s fortunes good or otherwise. All good innocent fun and, apart from the barmbrack, pretty uncommercial. Almost every culture marks Halloween, the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day. Many visit graveyards and bring the favourite food of their loved ones to picnic and reminisce on the graves.

Increasingly, it is about witches and pumpkins in the American tradition. Shops and farmers market stalls are piled high with pumpkins. Kids have pumpkin carving parties and I’ve even seen a spectacular totem pole made from a variety of pumpkins and squash at an organic farm in Britain.

So what to do with all the pumpkin flesh? Pumpkin soup is an obvious solution or make a puree, sweeten it for pumpkin pie or add lots of seasoning, fresh herbs and spices to serve it with savoury dishes. In Dublin recently I had a delicious pizza at Juniors – Paulie’s Pizza on Grand Canal Street (the sister restaurant of Juniors on Bath Avenue in Ballsbridge). Both are cool restaurants doing good food at reasonable prices. The thin crust was topped with fresh tomato sauce, roasted butternut, mozzarella, diced pancetta, freshly cracked black pepper and chilli flakes with a fistful of rocket leaves on top – very good indeed. I can’t usually manage to eat a whole pizza. It was so good I couldn’t bear to leave some behind. When I was crossing the road a passing motorist honked his horn and yelled out through his window “Where’s Darina Allen going with a take out pizza?”

Juniors – Paulie’s Pizza, 58 Grand Canal Street, Dublin 4, 01- 6643658; Juniors Restaurant, Bath Avenue, Ballsbridge, Co Dublin, 01-6643648

Spiced Pumpkin Soup

Pumpkins vary in intensity of flavour; some are much stronger than others so you may need to add some extra stock or milk. I sometimes add a can of coconut milk with delicious results.

900g (2lb) peeled and seeded pumpkin or winter squash, cut into cubes

175g (6oz) onion, peeled and chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

25g (1oz) butter

450g (llb) very ripe tomatoes or 1 x 14oz (400g) tinned tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon tomato puree

1 sprig thyme

1.2 litres (2 pints) homemade chicken stock

Salt, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg


40g (1½ozs) butter

½tsp cumin seeds

½tsp coriander seeds

½tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp white mustard seeds

2 inch (5cm) piece of cinnamon stick

Put the cubes of squash into a pan with the onion, garlic, butter and thyme. Cover and sweat over a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add the chopped tomatoes (plus ½-1 teaspoon sugar if using tinned tomatoes), purée and cook until they have dissolved to a thick sauce. Stir in the stock, salt, freshly ground pepper and a little freshly ground nutmeg and simmer until the squash is very tender.

Discard the thyme stalk, then liquidise the soup in several batches and return to the pan. You may need to add a little more stock or milk if the soup is too thick for you liking. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Just before serving, gently reheat the soup and pour into a warm serving bowl. Heat the coriander, cumin and pepper, and crush coarsely.

Melt the butter and, when foaming, add the crushed spices, mustard seeds and cinnamon. Stir for a few seconds until the mustard seeds start to pop. Quickly pour over the soup and serve, mixing in the spice butter as you ladle it out, having removed the cinnamon stick.

Halloween Barmbrack

Everyone in Ireland loves a barmbrack, perhaps because it brings back lots of memories of excitement and games at Halloween. When the barmbrack was cut, everyone waited in anticipation to see what they’d find in their slice: a stick, a pea, a ring, and what it meant for their future. Now they’re available in every Irish bakery, but here’s a great recipe you can use to make one at home. It keeps in a tin for up to a week. If this recipe feels like too much work, make the teabrack (Irish Barmbrack, see recipe below), which, after you’ve plumped up the fruit, takes mere minutes to mix.

450g (1lb) strong white bakers flour

½ level teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ level teaspoon mixed spice

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch of salt

25g (1oz) butter

20g (¾ oz) fresh yeast + 1 tsp sugar + 1 tsp tepid milk

75g (3oz) caster sugar

300ml (10fl oz) tepid milk

1 organic egg, whisked

225g (8oz) sultanas

110g (4oz) currants

50g (2oz) candied peel

chopped Bun Wash (see below)

Two 12.5 x 20cm (5 x 8in) loaf tins

For Halloween, ring, stick, pea and piece of cloth, all wrapped in greaseproof paper

It’s a help if all utensils are warm before starting to make barmbrack. Sieve the flour, cinnamon, mixed spice, nutmeg and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter. Mix the yeast with 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of tepid milk and leave for 4–5 minutes, until it becomes creamy and slightly bubbly.

Add the caster sugar to the flour mixture and mix well. Pour the tepid milk and the egg into the yeast mixture, then add to the flour.

Knead well either by hand or in the warmed bowl of an electric mixer at high speed for 5 minutes. The dough should be stiff but elastic.

Fold in the dried fruit and peel, cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size.

Knock back again for 2–3 minutes. Grease the loaf tins and divide the dough between them.

Add the ring, stick, pea and piece of cloth, tucking them well in and ensure they are hidden by the dough. Cover again and leave to rise for about 30–45 minutes until well puffed up.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Bake for about one hour or until golden and fully cooked.

Glaze the top with bun wash, put back into the oven for about 2 or 3 minutes. Turn out to cool on a wire tray. When cool serve cut into thick slices with butter.

Barmbrack keeps well, but if it gets a little stale, try it toasted or in a bread and butter pudding.

Bun Wash:

Put 150ml (¼ pint) water and 110g (¼ lb) sugar into a pan and boil for 2 minutes. Brush over the buns as soon as they come out of the oven to give them a sweet, sticky glaze.

Irish Tea Barmbrack

This is a more modern version of barmbrack, now commonly called a ‘tea brack’ because the dried fruit is soaked in tea overnight to plump it up (rather than boiled as in the recipe above).

This little gem of a recipe is much easier to make at home than the Halloween barmbrack. Even though it is a very rich bread, in Ireland it is traditionally served sliced and buttered.

Yields about 12 slices

110g (4oz) sultanas

110g (4oz) raisins

110g (4oz) currants

50g (2oz) natural glacé cherries, halved or quartered

300ml (10fl oz) hot tea

1 organic egg, whisked

200g (7oz) soft brown sugar

225g (8oz) self-raising flour

1 level tsp mixed spice

50g (2oz) homemade candied peel

450g (1lb) loaf tin – 12.5 x 20cm (5 x 8in) or 3 small loaf tins 15 x 7.5cm (6 x 3in)

Put the dried fruit and cherries into a bowl. Cover with hot tea and leave to plump up overnight.

Next day, line the loaf tin with silicone paper.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

Add the whisked egg, soft brown sugar, flour and mixed spice to the fruit and tea mixture. Stir well. Put the mixture into the lined loaf tin.

Cook in for about 1½ hours or until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Keeps very well in an airtight tin.

Gingerbread Witches

Makes approximately 40 witches

300g (11oz) butter

125g (4½oz) caster sugar

125g (4½oz) soft dark brown sugar

225g (8oz) golden syrup or treacle

725g (1lb 9oz) plain flour

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

3 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cinnamon

Icing for witches:

175g (6oz) icing sugar

1½ tbsp water OR 1½ tbsp lemon juice

Decoration for witches:

Chocolate buttons (milk or white chocolate).

Piping bag and nozzles

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter together with the sugars and golden syrup or treacle. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ground ginger and cinnamon into a large bowl. Add the melted butter and sugar and mix together.

Knead the mixture for a few seconds until it comes together, adding a teaspoon or so of water if necessary, but without allowing it to get too wet. Flatten the dough slightly into a round about 2cm (¾-inch) thick, wrap with cling film and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.

To make the gingerbread witches, remove the dough from the fridge, dust the work surface with flour and roll all of the dough to about 5mm (¼-inch) thick. Cut out the witch shapes using a stencil, transfer onto the baking trays and cook in the preheated oven for 12 minutes, until they are slightly firm, a little darker at the edges and slightly drier on top. Allow the shapes to firm up for a few minutes, then place them on a wire rack to cool.

When they have cooled, they can be iced, if you wish.

To make the icing, sift the icing sugar into a bowl and add the water. Beat until the icing comes together, adding a little more water if necessary.

Be careful not to add too much or the icing will be too runny.

Using a small palette knife, or the back of a spoon dipped into boiling water to make the icing easier to spread, spread the icing over the gingerbread witches.

If you wish to pipe on details, such as faces and hair, spoon the icing into a small piping bag with just the smallest corner cut off.

While the icing is still slightly “unset” on the biscuits, arrange the decorations you are using, then set aside for the icing to set.


Spooky Ghosts

This meringue mixture can also be made into pumpkins, brooms, cats, moons and stars.

4 egg whites

250g (9oz approx) icing sugar, sieved


½ pint (300ml) whipped cream

Cover three baking trays with a perfectly-fitting sheet of silicone paper.

Mix all the icing sugar with the egg whites at once in a spotlessly clean bowl.

Whisk until the mixture forms stiff dry peaks – 10 to 15 minutes. Spoon into a clean piping bag with a star nozzle and pipe into spooky ghost shapes.

Bake immediately in a low oven 150C (fan)\300F\regulo 2 for 30 minutes or until set crisp.

Pipe eyes with melted chocolate on half of the ghosts.

Sandwich the meringues together with whipped cream.


- The RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet will be performing a series of six concerts over October 30 and 31, in The Grain Store at Ballymaloe celebrating fine cuisine and the best of chamber classical music.

For more information please visit or call 083 3631468

- Hickey’s Bakery in Clonmel, Co Tipperary makes seriously fruity barmbrack which recently won Gold in The 2010 Blas na hÉireann National Irish Food Awards, 052 6121587,

- A good news story. Stephen Pearce is back in business and has reopened at the Old Pottery in Shanagarry. Lots of beautiful dishes hot off the potter’s wheel to enhance your delicious food.

The pottery is open Monday to Saturday 9am–5pm and Sunday 12noon–5pm. 021 4646807.

- At the Clare Harvest Festival all the food came from within a 40-mile radius of the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon where the feast was held and very delicious it was too. We drank a wild fruit wine made by Brian Ingram.

I usually avoid that kind of thing but I was mightily impressed by both the quality and fresh clean flavour of the wine – really worth seeking out. Info at

- There are still places left on the one-day Christmas Cooking part two course which covers both traditional and modern recipes including many favourites.

December 13, 9.30am to 5.00pm €245. Booking essential, 021 4646785,

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