Soul Cakes for Hallowtide

“Upon the second day of this Month, on which is commemorated The Feast of All Souls, it hath been a Custom, time out of mind, for good People to set on a Table-Board a high heap of Soul-Cakes, lying one upon another, like to the Shew-Bread in the Bible.

“They were in form about the bigness of a Two-Penny Cake: And every Visitant took one of them. And, there is an Old Rhyme, or Saying, which alludes to this, viz.

” ‘A Soul-Cake!
A Soul-Cake!
Have mercy on all Christen Souls, for
A Soul-Cake!’ “

John Aubrey, Shropshire, ca. 1686

One of the hallmarks of modern Halloween – trick-or-treating – might trace its origins to the older Hallowtide tradition of souling.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, townsfolk (soulers) would go door to door, offering to sing and pray for the departed loved ones from each household. In return, they would receive a soul cake (also called a soulmass cake). Similar to shortbread, these spiced soul cakes were marked with a cross, a visual reminder that they were alms.

Though the souling songs varied a bit, this Cheshire version recorded in 1891 remains one of the most classic examples:

(Refrain)
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

(Verse 1)
God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.
(Refrain)

(Verse 2)
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we’ll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.
(Refrain)

(Verse 3)
The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I’ve got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t get a ha’penny,
It’s God bless you

Cheshire Souling Song, recorded 1891 & published in 1893 by English folksong collector Lucy Broadwood

In our time, trick-or-treating is just done on Halloween; but in the heyday of souling, soulers would visit homes throughout all of Hallowtide – the vigil (All Hallows’ Eve), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. It would have been especially prevalent on All Souls’ Day itself.

The souling tradition itself came from theological understandings of Purgatory. With Hallowtide being set aside as a time to remember the cloud of witnesses, these lyrical prayers & traditions developed as a communal way to remember the dead and pray for all those departed loved ones who have shaped our lives.

One of the earliest surviving recipes for soul cakes comes from Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s 1604 compilation:

“Take flower & sugar & nutmeg, & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, beat your spice & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together & make it in little cakes & so bake them, if you will … you may put some saffron into them or fruit.”

Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, 1604; published as a collection, with annotations, by Hilary Spurling

Although Lady Elinor’s recipe isn’t explicitly titled “Soul Cakes” (her entry is simply dubbed “To Make Cakes”), later records of Soul Cake recipes are virtually identical.

Now, the tricky thing with recipes from this period is that they don’t provide measurements or temperatures, so I’ve done my best to translate Elinor’s recorded recipe into something that will work for us! Remember, recipes from this period won’t be nearly as sweet as what we’re accustomed to these days.

Just a few notes:

  • Sack: Sack was a fortified wine (a distilled spirit like brandy was added to it) imported from Spain or the Canary Islands. It was a sweet wine that matured in wooden barrels. A modern equivalent would be a sherry.
  • Ale barm: This is yeasty froth leftover from the ale-making process (ale is a fermented malt beverage without hops, whereas beer has hops). The barm would be scooped out and used to leaven bread.

For both of these recipes, we used our stone-ground mill to grind wheat for the flour – so the main ingredient was as fresh as possible.

(If you’d rather try a more modern version of Soul Cakes, fear not! I’ve provided an option for that, too).

Historic Soul Cakes Recipe (based on Lady Elinor’s 1604 recipe)

Historic Soul Cakes

A recreation of the 1604 recipe

Ingredients


“Take flower & sugar & nutmeg, & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, beat your spice & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together & make it in little cakes & so bake them, if you will … you may put some saffron into them or fruit.” (Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, 1604; published as a collection, with annotations, by Hilary Spurling)

– 1/2 cup ale, room temp
– 1/2 cup sack (try dry sack sherry), room temp
– 2 tsp yeast
– 2.5 cups flour
– 3/4 – 1 cup sugar
– 5 T butter, room temp
– 1/4 tsp each of ground nutmeg, clove, & mace
– pinch saffron
– 1/4 cup dried currants

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375* F.
  2. Dissolve yeast in the warm ale (this will approximate the “ale barm”)
  3. Sprinkle saffron threads in the sack.
  4. Mix together flour, sugar, & spices.
  5. Add butter & mix until consistency is sandy.
  6. Mix in the ale, bit by bit & keeping some reserved, so that the mixture doesn’t get too wet.
  7. Mix in the sack – again, bit by bit & reserving some.
  8. Mix by hand until the consistency is elastic, but not too sticky. Add a little more of the ale or sack if it’s too dry, or a little more flour if it’s too wet.
  9. Blend in dried currants.
  10. Let sit, covered, for about 15 minutes.
  11. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick. Cut out circles – I just use a jam jar!
  12. Place the cakes onto a baking pan lined with parchment. Use a sharp knife to make a cross in each cake, and let them sit to rise for about 15 minutes.
  13. Bake at 375* F for about 15 minutes.

Modern Soul Cakes Recipe

Modern Soul Cakes

A modern version of the Hallowtide classic

Ingredients

  • 3 & 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp each cinnamon, ginger, & allspice
  • 2 eggs
  • dash of milk

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350* F.
  2. Mix the butter into the flour until it reaches a pebbly consistency.
  3. Add in sugar & spices.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with a dash of milk.
  5. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture. If it’s too dry, add a little more milk.
  6. Knead the dough and roll out until about 1/4 inch thick. Cut round cakes (I use a jam jar!)
  7. Place cakes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: