Ask anyone about the traditional bakes of Wales, and those that don’t look at you strangely may well talk dreamily of Welsh cakes, bara brith or laverbread: these familiar suggestions are a bit strange as two of them aren’t baked and laverbread isn’t a bread, it’s a seaweed. No, really.
So, let’s deal with the pronunciation first: as an ex-pat Devonian with only a smattering of Welsh the nearest I can do is bara rhymes with the first part of “paragraph” and brith is exactly the same as “breathe” but with the softer “th” of “breath”. In fact, I used to say brith in the English style until a Welsh-speaking friend shouted at me (nicely), so I’ve said it properly ever since.
When asked to provide a flavour of Wales for the BIG Event Cardiff Online 2021 my thoughts immediately flew to bara brith. Not only do you find it in plentiful amounts on many conference menus, but it’s a wonderfully forgiving recipe: novice cooks are highly likely to end up with a decent cake if you follow the recipe; more experienced bakers can let imaginations go wild with different flavour combinations. Like many Welsh recipes, this is easily adapted to vegan, gluten free and other dietary requirements, a simple internet search will have some good options. Welsh cakes are also scrummy but ideally need a bakestone and you might need a bit of practice to get the timing right; I really wanted something that could be made easily by most people regardless of baking experience. And the seaweed in laverbread isn’t everyone’s cup of tea as well as a possible challenge to source, so bara brith it is.
Bara brith means “speckled bread”, or to be exact “bread speckled” due to the differences between English and Welsh (if anyone can explain this as I don’t know the languages’ development or technical terms, please pop it in the comments below). Just to be clear the speckles refer to the dried fruit not some accident in baking or mythological story. Originally this was a yeasted dough recipe from when everyone made their own bread and had yeast and/or dough readily available, but over the years it’s transformed into a cake, perhaps due to a reduction in homemade bread or as the quality of self-raising flour improved giving a more reliable finish. It’s also known as a tea bread as the dried fruit is soaked, preferably overnight, in tea giving the fruit a gloriously plump juiciness. Boiled fruitcake gives a similar finish but I’m not sure the boiling would work as a shortcut here as the tannin flavour in the tea may become a bit strong. Traditionally bara brith is served buttered, perhaps a nod to it’s bready heritage, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary: provided you don’t overbake you’ll have a wonderfully moist cake though the cold, creamy, slightly salty butter is a beautiful counterpoint to the gently sweet, mildly spiced and plumply fruited cake.
The recipe I chose is from the Visit Wales website with a couple of small tweaks mentioned in the ingredients which I hope Welsh cooks won’t mind. It takes about fifteen minutes to prepare, plus soaking time for the fruit (details below), an hour or so to cook depending on your oven, cuts into 8-10 slices and will keep in an air-tight tin or similar for seven days. Apparently storing for a couple of days before eating helps the flavours to develop but frankly it’s so good I’d be surprised if anyone can keep their hands off it that long. I’ll take some photos as we go along but as I’ve never tried this before the result might be hilarious.
Channelling thrifty Welsh, and in my case Devonian, cooks past and present I chose to not waste the oven: I made double and popped the spare cake in the freezer (like many fruit cakes it freezes beautifully), as well as baking a pie for tea and drying some egg shells for composting, but that’s a story for another time. I also chose to use up odds and ends of dried fruit I had to hand, it’s the total weight that matters not what it consists of.
To make one cake you will need:
400g dried mixed fruit. I used a mix of currants, sultanas and some mixed peel as I love a bit of citrus zing alongside dried fruit and mixed spice. I’m not sure glacé cherries would work well in this particular recipe due to the flavour combinations but I’m willing to be wrong.
300ml strong hot tea. I made this with two tea bags. Discard the teabags before soaking the fruit and definitely before making the cake. More experienced cooks may choose to experiment with the flavoured tea: a spiced apple might be nice but mint probably won’t with the mixed spice.
250g self-raising flour. Personally I use organic as it’s great quality but your cake, your choice.
1 tsp mixed spice. At this point in any recipe I think “Yeah, right” as I really like it so always at least double whatever it says. If you’re a beginner follow what the recipe says, you can tweak it next time; if you’re more experienced the choice is yours.
100g dark brown muscovado sugar. This is part of the secret to the lovely flavour but if you can’t find it any brown sugar will do if necessary. White sugar doesn’t have the same caramelly flavour but probably better than not having any cake.
1 beaten egg, free range if possible to be kind to the hen.
Honey to glaze. Optional: not all bara briths I’ve seen are glazed and I chose to leave it off without any detriment to the flavour. As a beekeeper I’d recommend finding honey from a local beekeeper, it often has a better flavour than supermarket honey for reasons I don’t have space to explain.
1. The night before put your dried fruit in a bowl, add the tea and sugar and leave to soak. Pop a tea towel on top because somehow it looks right and read it a bedtime story (optional). Or if you’re anything like me completely forget the night before, wake up early and dash downstairs to do it and make a cuppa. Then a couple of hours later when you’ve finally woken up realise you forgot to add the sugar and do so, the good news is the finished bara briths (I’m doing two remember) never noticed. As long as the fruit has its sweet tea bath for at least six hours it’ll be fine.
2. After the fruit has soaked don’t drain any spare tea left still in the bowl, but add the mixed spice, stir in the egg and sift in the flour. Flour can be sneaky and hide at the bottom of the bowl so give it a really good mix to make sure no blobs are missed: it’s always disappointing to bite into a flour bubble in a cake. At this point I always end up wearing some of the flour regardless of what recipe I’m making, I can only assume this is some sort of possibly personal tradition.
3. Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius or Gas Mark 4. Line the tin with greaseproof or baking paper, or you could try greasing and flouring it: lining is important to get the cake out in one piece. This may, or may not, be a plot point for later in this story. Pour in the mixture trying not to get splodges on the sides above the level of the bara brith which may burn onto the tin. Or just wipe them off.
4. Bake for about one hour until the cake is risen, a lovely shade a of brown and cooked through. You could use this time to find out about other traditional Welsh recipes such as cawl, Glamorgan sausages or Welsh rarebit; explore more Welsh myths and legends; find out about Women’s History in Wales (I particularly like the Cardiff one); or learn about Cardiff or famous Welsh scientists or engineers. Or lick the mixing bowl and have a cup of tea, “paned” (PAH-ned) in Welsh, up to you.
Being able to smell the cake is a good sign it’s about done, but double check by pushing in a skewer and seeing if it comes out clean. If it doesn’t you may have hit a particularly juicy bit of fruit so try it a few times, after all BIG is all about STEM communication and replicating results is good science. If it needs longer and you think the top is about the right colour pop some foil on top so it doesn’t catch.
5. Turn the cake out and take the lining off before it cools. This is the plot point from earlier: I used loaf tin liners which got the bara briths out in one piece but attached themselves to the cake as they cooled, giving me an annoying fifteen minutes trying to get it all off and a slightly unusual finish to the sides. Never mind, they still tasted good (quality control).
6. If you want to glaze the cake, gently warm the honey and pour it over the warm bara brith.
7. Slice and enjoy your own taste of Wales, content in the knowledge you’re joining a long line of cooks, conference attendees and cake lovers.
If you’re attending the BIG Event I’ll see you there; we’ve got a Bake Along Social (link open to those who have registered) on 20th July for baking, eating, salivating or just catching up with people. You can also tweet your photos to @BIGChats #BIGEvent #BIGBakeAlong; I don’t use social media but it’d be great for others to see. I’d love to hear how it goes and what you think of bara brith in the comments below. Happy baking!
With thanks to my friends Emma and Laura for proof reading, Miranda for checking the transliteration and Polly and Debbie for the test bakes with some interesting twists; diolch yn fawr iawn ffrindiau.
PS In case you were wondering the pie was lovely too.