Monday, December 17, 2012

Tea Brack

One of the exciting things about this past year at Strawbery Banke is that I have been able to explore a lot more food history. I had spent the last couple years teaching myself about medieval foodways, but it was awesome to look, first at colonial food, then Jewish cooking, and finally getting the chance to dip my toes into traditional Irish fare.

For Candlelight Stroll I am in the kitchen of the Victorian mansion, portraying an Irish servant, so when asked if I wanted to do some cooking, I jumped at the chance. The dichotomy of a girl coming from a culture of starvation (1850s Ireland) to become the cook in a house where almost any food is available in almost any season is extremely fascinating. Some of my bosses talked about the decadence of Victorian cooking, others about the long traditions of Ireland. At first I was at a bit of a loss, I had a short time to read up on two different food cultures, and I did not have a lot of museum support since the regular season was over. Still, I knew some basics: pies and puddings are good Victorian celebratory fare, tea and soda bread are good Irish traditions.

I called on my own Irish connection and my aunt Kathleen came through. She mailed me a copy of A taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures by Theodora Fitzgibbon. What a great book! Kathleen had marked her favorite recipes and I picked out one that looked good, a fruit-cake-like dessert that seemed festive enough, called Tea Brack.

The recipe book, surrounded by at least some of the ingredients
The gist of Tea Brack is you take a bunch of dried fruit and soak them in tea and whiskey overnight, then bake them into a cake.  I bought some golden raisins, used the dates and apricots I already had in the house, with some currants from Das Geld Fahnlien’s supplies (those supplies are living at our house this winter.) I made up a pot of Earl Grey and asked Stephen for a cup of whiskey. An entire cup. I probably should have halved the recipe, but by the time I figured that out it was much too late. Stephen is a bit of a whiskey snob so he has plenty of whiskey in the house, but it is all pretty expensive stuff. He sighed mightily as he poured me a little from this bottle and a little from that to make up a full cup. The house smelled lovely overnight, as the sugar and liquids were absorbed by the fruits. When I added in the dry ingredients it was an incredibly wet cake, but I poured it into two loaf pans and a round cake pan. It was supposed to cook at 300 for one and a half hours, but I started it a bit late, and needed to take it to the museum. So I started it at 300, then 20 minutes in Stephen turned it up to 320, and 10 minutes later I turned it up for 340. At exactly an hour we pulled all the cakes out of the oven, they were done.

The tea rack sits among the other goodies and looks splendid
Photo by Jess Boynton
The round one came with us to the museum, and it looked great on a plate among our tea things. We tell all the folks that come to visit us about the recipe from home, just like mother used to make, with tea and whiskey (that’s how you know it is Irish.) It tastes lovely too, the whiskey flavor has toned down a bit since that first night, now it is just nice and fruity with a smoky tone to it. I’d make it again, but definitely halve the recipe, and possibly make it a little more cakey.


  1. I've never heard of Strawberry Banke Museum until I discovered your blog.
    How awesome is it that you get to work in such a place!
    I look forward to delving into your archives!

  2. Hi Ken, You are not the only person who has either never heard of the museum or (if they are local) thought it was just a historical house or two. Maybe I'll have to write a blog post on that...