My Honey Girl and I spent the first week of April together in Ireland. Beneath a cornflower blue sky and tucked into the soft Connemara mountains, celadon in sunlight, black in shadow, we settled into the Cashel House where Mrs. McEvilly and her soft-spoken staff surrounded us with their incomparable care, tucking hot water bottles into our beds on chilly evenings and placing our pajamas on top so they were warm, too, bringing us pots of tea and biscuits, and glasses of champagne, and books to read in comfortable chairs before turf fires, poached rhubarb for our morning porridge, and sandwiches and slices of rhubarb tart when we arrived back too late for dinner. Without an itinerary we set about a proper vacation, that is, a week to do nothing but what suited us in the moment and focused primarily on total relaxation. We took out our battered little rental car to wind through Connemara, north and south, east and west, as interest and whim took us, past wooly sheep doused in the pink and blue dyes used in this part of the world since Adam was a boy, past the blooming gorse, brilliant yellow, past men hunched to cut bricks of peat in the ancient bogs, and Irish gardens in bloom: daffodil and tulip, heather and camellia, crocus and rhododendron and azalea, hyacinth, narcissus, agapanthus, vinca and spring gentian. In fact, I felt all week like a flower myself, with my own personal sunshine, my Honey Girl, beside me, waking from the long, grey dream of winter. Through the windshield: the savage beauty of the landscape (curtsy here to Oscar Wilde), the barren loveliness of the Burren, its limestone softened by wildflower, the sea with all its shades of blue, its rock, its draped grass, thatched cottages walled with stone, and the odd shaggy cow. We slept and hiked and lolled and ate and drank until we were so content we couldn’t wish for more—except perhaps that our time together wouldn’t end.
One of our favorite discoveries of the week was a barmbrack we ate at the Burren Perfumery, a charming spot with an herb garden, tea room, still room, and shop where they sell lovely wild-crafted perfumes and body products. Barmbrack is a fruitcake, a keeping cake, perfect with a cup of strong tea. The recipe I developed is a one-bowl stir-up. I soaked raisins and sultanas and currants overnight in black tea and added homemade candied orange peel, big candied cherries, dark muscovado sugar, and sherry the next day. The cake is dense and moist with pops of cherry and sherry against the earthiness of the tea and spice. I made a big batch so I could share some with my pantry exchange group and the rest with family. If you’re not keen on fruitcake, this one might change your mind. I’m most happy that whenever I bake it or eat it, it will return me to the memory of first sharing it with my Honey Girl in the little oasis of our week together.
Baby Barmbracks with Sherry
Yield: ten mini loaves
1 c. raisins
2 c. golden raisins
1 ½ c. currants
3 c. strong black tea, preferably Irish
1 c. whole candied cherries
½ c. diced candied orange peel
1 ½ c. muscovado sugar (or substitute dark brown sugar + 2 T molasses)
1 ½ c. sugar
1 c. sherry (I love Lustau East India Solera.)
2 ½ c. all purpose flour (I prefer King Arthur.)
2 ½ c. whole wheat pastry flour (or substitute all purpose flour)
½ t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
¼ t. ground cloves
½ t. ginger
½ t. freshly ground nutmeg
½ t. salt
- The night before you wish to bake the cakes, in a large mixing bowl, stir together the raisins, golden raisins, currants, and tea. Cover the bowl and refrigerate it overnight.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
- Add the cherries, orange peel, sugars, sherry, and egg, and mix until well combined.
- Place a sieve over the bowl and add the flours, baking soda, spices, and salt. Shake the ingredients through the sieve and stir the batter gently until it is uniformly mixed. Do not overmix.
- Place ten mini loaf pans onto a large jellyroll pan and divide the batter evenly into the pans, about one scant cup of batter per pan.
- Bake for 30 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees in your oven. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean or nearly clean, about an additional 30 to 35 minutes.
- When they have cooled completely, the cakes may be wrapped tightly in cellophane and then aluminum foil and frozen. They will also keep wrapped this way at room temperature for about one week.
- Serve with a nice cup of Irish or other good black tea.