Barm cake is an unusual term with a surprising amount of meanings. In England, it is a term for a bread roll similar to a hamburger bun, often filled with French fries and sausage. In Ireland, barm cakes are an alternate term for barm brack, a traditional Halloween dessert. Barm cake has also come to use in slang, to refer to a stupid or idiotic person, as in “I’m such a barm cake when it comes to math.”
The slang use of barm cake is of uncertain origin, but likely is a reference to the blandness of the British roll. The simple plainness of barm cakes may relate to other British slang terms for stupidity, such as simpleton. In any case, this term is an excellent piece of obscure slang for those who enjoy insulting others in a way they likely will not understand.
The British use of the term refers to a plain, soft roll, usually topped with flour before baking. Originally, its name came from the heavily-flavored barm leaven. Barm is created during fermentation of yeast, often during the process of making ale or lager. When scraped from the top of the liquid, barm was often combined with hops and was originally used as the yeast agent in barm bread. Today, most barm cakes are made with regular yeast, and is often found in fish and chip shops as chip barms.
The Irish version of barm cakes are considerably more fun, and attached to an ancient superstition. Barm brack, as it is commonly known, is a fruit and spice cake traditionally served on Halloween. Typically, a wedding ring is baked randomly into the cake. Whoever gets the slice of barm brack with the ring in it is said to be the next person to marry, or to at least be married by the next Halloween.
To make Irish barm cakes for your next spooky celebration, the typical recipe calls for sultanas, raisins, candied citrus peel and nutmeg mixed into a simple egg and yeast dough. Bake on a high heat for approximately an hour. If you are going to include the traditional ring, warn your guests to check their slices before eating! It is easy to break a tooth or swallow a small ring, which will unpleasantly ruin the thought of getting married within the year.