Bara Brith (Welsh Spotted Bread)

Week Thirty-Six: Breads of the United Kingdom

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In the United Kingdom, people drink a staggering 1,000 cups of tea per person per year.  For contrast, the average American drinks about 550 cups of coffee per year.  It makes perfect sense, then, that many traditional British breads go so well with tea.  No offense to the blueberry muffin, but a blueberry scone is far more appropriate at tea time.

The bread for today, bara brith, takes that tea-esque pairing to a whole new level, using black tea to plump dried currants and golden raisins.  The soaking liquid is then used as the primary source of moisture in the loaf, infusing every last mote with the light smoke and gentle bitterness of the tea, and turning the currants and raisins into saturated bombs of jammy goodness, waiting like land mines to explode onto your tongue.

Bara brith is a popular Welsh treat, readily available at most bakeries and tea shops.  It can be either yeast- or chemically-leavened, but both versions are heavily spiced, and dotted throughout – the name translates literally to “speckled bread” – with the aforementioned dried fruit, and often candied citrus peel as well.

I decided to make the quick bread version of bara brith, delicious as the yeasted type sounds, purely because of those tea-soaked fruits.  Very moist objects such as these are difficult to work evenly into a yeast dough, but cause no problem at all in a quick bread.  You could refrain from soaking the fruits, leaving them drier and more easily incorporated; but every Wesh gran from Cardiff to Llandudno will tell you that without the tea soak, it’s simply not a proper bara brith.

Stealing a brilliant trick from one recipe I found, I’ve incorporated candied orange peel in the form of orange marmalade.  Candied peel is often hard to find outside of Christmas time, and I found it too time consuming to make separately, but wanted the hit of citrus all the same.  I used a bitter Seville orange marmalade, in order to cut the sweetness a jam would certainly provide.  The chunky bits of peel brought a fabulous contrast to the sugary currants and raisins, and added a welcome brightness to the loaf.

When mixing this batter together, the generous amount of cinnamon, allspice, and clove smelled exactly like Christmas to me, and made me actually crave a glass of eggnog, despite the sunny, late-summer afternoon waiting outside my window.  In lieu, however, I made a cup of tea, and dreamily took in the smells wafting expectantly from the oven.

After the long, slow baking, when I finally got to sample a slice, it tasted even better than it smelled.  Moist, full-flavored, tender, spiced, it was everything I’d hoped.  Though it would be perfect to serve beside a sparkling Christmas tree, it was surely just as good with my summer mug of Earl Gray.  Those British sure do know how to make a tea pairing, don’t they?

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Bara Brith (Welsh Spotted Bread)
Makes one 9 x 5 inch loaf

8 ounces water
1 bag black tea (such as English breakfast or Earl Gray)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons orange marmalade (preferably a bitter orange, such as Seville oranges)
4 ounces (about 3/4 cup) dried currants
6 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups) golden raisins
1 1/2 ounces (1 jigger) brandy (optional)
12 ounces (1 3/4 scant cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk

1.  Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Add the tea bag, and steep for 5 minutes, covered.  After 5 minutes, remove the tea bag and discard.  Add the sugar, and stir until dissolved.  Mix in the marmalade.  In a heat-proof bowl, combine the currants and raisins.  Pour the tea mixture over, and add the brandy (if using).  Cover tightly, and let stand at room temperature for at least 1 and up to 24 hours (overnight is typical).

2.  Preheat the oven to 325º F.  Butter a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan, and line with parchment paper.

3.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves.  Whisk the egg and milk together, and add to the flour mixture.  Add the soaked dried fruit, and all the soaking liquid.  Using a spatula, gently mix together until just combined, and all the dry ingredients are moistened.

4.  Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan, and bake at 325º F for 2 hours, or until cooked through.  When done, a skewer will come out clean when inserted into the center.  Start checking the bread after it has baked for 90 minutes, and every 15 minutes thereafter.  If it begins to brown too much, loosely cover the loaf with aluminum foil and continue baking.  When fully baked, let cool briefly in the pan, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool thoroughly before slicing.

Notes:
1.  Bara brith will keep several days at room temperature, in an air-tight container.  It may also be frozen and reheated in a 350º F oven until heated through.  Though not traditional, it is delicious toasted.  Serve with butter or clotted cream, and a cup of the same tea used in the recipe.

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