ArchiveOctober 28, 2006

Halloween Dates from an Ancient Celtic Festival

Halloween dates from the ancient Celtic festival Samhain which was the first day of Winter on November 1st , it later became All Souls Day which was an important date in the church calendar. The night before Samhain is Hallowe’en or All Hallow’s Eve, and this was traditionally the night for the festivities. As children we always had a Hallowe’en party and had the greatest fun planning it for weeks before. We made black witches’ hats, scary masks and polished up our collection of ghost stories. Trekking from house to house we gathered ‘monkey’ nuts and apples and a few coins if we were lucky. Hollowed out turnips were used to make lanterns with eerie toothless faces and we put these on the gate post of the house where the party was being held. 

Nowadays the children can buy their readymade Hallowe’en outfits, pumpkins abound, ‘trick or treat bags’ can be bought and its very easy to organize a party for children or adults. Hallowe’en is an excuse to play all sorts of old-fashioned games – like snap apple and dunking for apples and to indulge in some divination. 

To get everyone in the spirit of things, drape twists of black and orange crepe paper all over doors and window frames. Weave cobwebby tangles of grey wool and make broomsticks from autumnal twigs and leaves. 

For the feast make some Witches’ Bread or Barm Brack and hide a ring, pea, stick and rag inside so your guests can predict their fortune. Colcannon is another traditional Hallowe’en dish - don’t forget to put a little bowl on the windowsill for the fairies and to ward off evil spirits. After hollowing out a pumpkin for a lantern you could use the cut away flesh from inside to make some warming Pumpkin Soup. Warm apple cake fresh from the oven with cream and soft brown sugar is irresistible, or easier still some Baked Apples would be delicious. Have fun and remember don’t eat any blackberries after Hallowe’en because the devil or the púca might have spat on them!


Songs have been sung and poems have been written about Colcannon. It’s one of Ireland’s most famous traditional potato dishes. It’s comfort food at its very best and terrific for a party.
Serves 8 approx.

450g (1lb) Savoy or spring cabbage
1.35kg (3lb) 'old' potatoes, e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks
250ml (8fl oz) boiling milk approx.
30g (1oz) scallion or spring onion, optional
salt and freshly ground pepper
55g (2oz) butter approx.

Scrub the potatoes, put them in a saucepan of cold water, add a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes are about half cooked, 15 minutes approx. for 'old' potatoes, strain off two-thirds of the water, replace the lid on the saucepan, put onto a gentle heat and allow the potatoes to steam until they are cooked.

Remove the dark outer leaves from the cabbage. Wash the rest and cut into quarters, remove the core and cut finely across the grain. Cook in a little boiling salted water or bacon cooking water until soft. Drain, season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a little butter. If using kale, remove the central rib. Cook the kale in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender. This may take 8-10 minutes, depending on the type and maturity of the kale. Curly kale is sweetest after it has been mellowed by a few night frosts.

When the potatoes are just cooked, put the milk, and the finely chopped scallions into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Pull the peel off the potatoes and discard, mash quickly while they are still warm and beat in enough boiling milk to make a fluffy puree. (If you have a large quantity, put the potatoes in the bowl of a food mixer and beat with the spade.) Then stir in the cooked cabbage and taste for seasoning. For perfection, serve immediately in a hot dish with a lump of butter melting in the centre.

Colcannon may be prepared ahead up to this point and reheated later in a moderate oven 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4, for 20-25 minutes approx. Cover while reheating so it doesn't get too crusty on top.

Halloween Barmbrack

This delicious tea brack recipe was given to me by Lana Pringle, who lives in Shanagarry. Lana makes her delicious cakes by hand and cooks them in her old Aga.
Halloween is a terrific time to have a party. In Ireland a barmbrack is a must for the festivities. The work “barm” comes from the old English “beorma”, meaning yeasted fermented liquor. “Brack” comes from the Irish “brac”, meaning speckled – which the cake is, with dried fruit and candied peel. Traditionally a Halloween Barmbrack is made with yeast but for easy entertaining this tea brack is much less stressful to make. Halloween has always been associated with fortune telling and divination, so various objects are wrapped up and hidden in the cake mixture – a wedding ring, a coin, a pea or a thimble (signifying spinsterhood), a piece of matchstick (which means that your husband will beat you!).

400g (14 oz) dried fruit, raisins and sultanas
50g (2 oz) cherries
50g (2 oz) chopped candied peel - see recipe
110g (4 oz) soft brown sugar
110g (4 oz) granulated sugar
450g (15 fl oz) tea 
400g (14 oz) plain white flour
1/8 teaspoon of baking powder 
1 egg, free-range and organic
3 tins 10 x 15 x 7.5cm deep (4 x 61/4 x 3 inch deep)
or 2 tins 25.5 x 38 x 6.5cm deep (5 x 8 x 21/2 inch deep)

Put raisins and sultanas into a bowl, cover with tea (Lana occasionally uses a mixture of Indian and Lapsang Souchong, but any good strong tea will do) and leave overnight to allow the fruit to plump up. Next day add the halved cherries, chopped candied peel, sugar and egg and mix well. Sieve the flour and baking powder and stir in thoroughly. The mixture should be softish, add a little more tea if necessary 50ml (2 fl oz). 

Grease the tins with melted butter (Lana uses old tins, heavier gauge than are available nowadays, light modern tins may need to be lined with silicone paper for extra protection.)

Divide the mixture between the three tins and bake in a moderate oven 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 40 minutes approx.

Lana bakes her barmbracks in the Aga, after 40 minutes she turns the tins around and gives them a further 10 minutes approx.* Leave in the tins for about 10 minutes and then remove and cool on a wire rack. 

*If you are using two tins the barmbracks will take 1 hour approx.

Irish Apple Cake

Apple cakes like this one are the traditional sweet in Ireland. The recipe varies from house to house and the technique has been passed from mother to daughter in farmhouses all over the country for generations. It would originally have been baked in a bastible or pot beside an open fire and later in the oven or stove on tin or enamel plates. These are much better than ovenproof glass because the heat travels through and cooks the pastry base more readily - worth remembering, as a tart with a soggy base is not attractive! In Ireland all apple cakes are made with cooking apples.
Serves 6 approx.

8 ozs (225g) flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
4 ozs (110g) butter
4½ ozs (125g) castor sugar
1 egg, preferably free-range
2-4 fl. ozs (50-120ml) milk, approx.
1-2 cooking apples - we use Bramley Seedling or Grenadier
2-3 cloves (optional)
egg wash

Ovenproof plate 

Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until it resembles the texture of breadcrumbs, add 3 ozs (85g) castor sugar, make a well in the centre and mix to a soft dough with the beaten egg and enough milk to form a soft dough. Divide in two. Put one half onto a greased ovenproof plate and pat out to cover. Peel, core and chop up the apples, place them on the dough and add 1½ ozs (45g) sugar, depending on the sweetness of the apples. Roll out the remaining pastry and fit on top, this is easier said than done as this 'pastry' is more like scone dough and as a result is very soft. Press the sides together, cut a slit through the lid, egg wash and bake in a moderate oven 180C/350F/regulo 4 for 40 minutes approx. or until cooked through and nicely browned. Dredge with castor sugar and serve warm with Barbados sugar and softly whipped cream.

Book of the Week –

This recipe for Pumpkin Soup comes from The Festive Food of America by Martina Nicolls published by Kyle Cathie with wonderful photographs by Will Heap. It is a vibrant collection of both the traditional and more unusual foods that are cooked on festive occasions throughout the year. Be it Creole cooking in New Orleans where Mardi Gras is (still) celebrated in grand style to a warming feast at Hallowe’en , and from Labour Day fare to Thanksgiving, the Americans know how to feast .

Buy this Book from Amazon

This is Martina’s description of Hallowe’en festivities in America.
“All Hallows’ Eve, 31st October is the night witches fly on broomsticks across the moonlit sky, Jack-0-lanterns (hollowed-out pumpkins with grinning, demonic faces lit by candles) flicker mysteriously in dark windows and children all over America dress in spooky costumes and frightening masks. They go from house to house asking for ‘Trick or Treat’ – custom evolving from pagan Celtic fire festivals to frighten away evil spirits returning from the dead. These pagan rituals eventually became secularised, and developed into children’s games. They were probably brought to America by immigrants, particularly the Irish in the late 19th Century. A treat is asked for or a trick is played. Bags of sweets and cookies are quite acceptable and if not forthcoming the wicked witches’ curse will descend upon the house and its unfortunate occupants. The evening usually ends with ghost stories around the fire and mugs of hot Pumpkin Soup”

Pumpkin Soup

Pumpkins were introduced to the early settlers by Indian tribes and are traditionally made into pies and soups. This is a beautifully coloured soup.
Serves 8-10

1 large orange pumpkin
1kg piece of pumpkin, cut into chunks
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Small bunch of spring onions, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
3-4 celery leaves, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
85g butter
1.6 litres of chicken stock
350ml single cream
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
225g croutons
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Slice the top off the pumpkin to make a lid, scrape out the seeds and stringy bits and carefully scoop out 1kg of flesh for the soup. (Use a separate piece of pumpkin if you prefer.)

Sauté the onion, spring onions, celery leaves and garlic in 50g of the butter until tender but not brown.
Add the pumpkin chunks and cook gently for 10 minutes. Add the stock and simmer, stirring until the pumpkin is tender, about 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and pureé in a food processor until smooth. Return to the pan, whisk in the cream and remaining butter and heat thoroughly without boiling. It should be satin smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Warm the hollowed-out pumpkin in a preheated oven, 180C/350F.gas 4, for 15 minutes. Pour in the hot soup, sprinkle with parsley and serve the croutons separately. Or, if preferred, serve in bowls.

Foolproof food

Witches Bread with Chocolate and Raisins

450g (1lb) flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon bread soda, sieved
1 level teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
50g (2oz) dark chocolate roughly chopped
50g (2oz) raisins
400ml (14fl oz) buttermilk or 350ml (12fl oz) + 1 egg

Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/gas 7.

In a large bowl sieve the flour and bread soda and add the salt, sugar, chocolate and raisins. Make a well in the centre and pour most of the buttermilk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the side of the bowl, adding more buttermilk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn the dough onto a floured board. Wash and dry your hands.

With floured fingers tidy up the dough gently and flip over and tuck it in underneath. Pat the dough into a round about 4cm (11/2in) deep. Cut a deep cross on it and prick in the centre of the four segments to let the fairies out. 

Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200ºC/400ºF/gas 6, for 35 minutes or until cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom: if it is cooked it will sound hollow. Cool on a wire rack. Serve freshly baked, cut into thick slices and smeared with butter. 

Make 8 – 10 mini witches, don’t forget to cut a cross in them also. 

Hot Tips

Cuthbert’s Polish Bread
Look out for Cuthbert’s sliced white Polish bread in shops in East Cork. Small local bakers really need our support to help them to compete in a very tough marketplace. This is a real find – bread like it used to be and ‘a little taste of Poland’. 

‘Tots to Teens’ the latest in the BIM series of health information leaflets aims to inform parents of the positive benefits of including fish in children’s diets. It is available from GP’s, dietitians and fish retail outlets, and on request from BIM 01-214 4100 or visit  

First Cross Border Organic Food Conference
National Organic Week runs from 6 - 12 November. One of the flagship events is the first all Ireland Organic Food Conference on 7th November at The Landmark Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. 
The event has been produced by Atlantic Organics Ltd, a new organic food company which was set up with EU funding support. The Conference is for everyone in the 32 counties involved in organic food, from production and processing through to retailing.
To register contact Atlantic Organics Ltd on Tel: 071 98 54014 or email:  For further information visit www.atlantico


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