A Soul Cake

Our Hallowe’en celebrations yesterday were different from those of recent years. Quite apart from everything else, we are in the middle of moving house and have to contend with the disruptive upheaval and emotional turbulence that this creates. Instead of our usual wild witching party with friends, we held a more subdued family coven meeting in the kitchen where various spells were chanted and slimy slugs and snails were shaped from a bubbling cauldron of bread dough.

Despite the general sense of ghoulish revelry that prevailed throughout the evening, Hallowe’en is very much a seasonal festival for me and a time to reflect on the transition from summer into winter. This association reaches back in time to pre-Christian Europe when people’s lives were closely tied to the food production cycle. The end of the summer months initiated a period of the year when livestock were rounded up and culled, crops were stored and fishing boats were repaired in preparation for the coming winter. The night we know as Hallowe’en was more commonly described then in Gaelic as Samhain, or Summer’s End. Festivities on the eve of November 1st marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the darker half of the year.

The evening of the day before a new season was believed to be a significant boundary in the Celtic world. Boundaries were important to the Celts, not least because they separated the dead from the living. Boundaries and thresholds in both time and space were regarded as protection for the living against the supernatural inhabitants of the Otherworld. The transition between the old and new years at Samhain was therefore a particularly unsettling time for the Celts as they firmly believed that it was on this eve that the boundary between the worlds dissolved and the barrier between the living and the dead became permeable. Not only could supernatural spirits pass more easily into our world, but humans also could be tricked into passing through to the other side and then trapped there, unable to return to their living families.

Many Samhain traditions can be understood as an attempt either to frighten away malevolent spirits or to welcome home dead relatives. Hideous faces carved into jack-o-lantern turnips kept evil spirits away from the door whilst food would often be left outside as offerings to appease the dead.

The modern-day custom of trick-or-treating also has its roots in Celtic tradition. Bonfires blazed at Samhain, both to signify the dying of the sun god and to banish the ill-intentioned.  Small cakes or biscuits would be baked and scattered around the bonfires, possibly to propitiate spirits trapped in animal form. Although the Christian calendar introduced the names of All Souls’ Eve and All Souls’ Day for Samhain in an attempt to supplant the pagan festival of the dead, the old ways persisted. Sweet and steaming small cakes would be piled onto plates to welcome night visitors on All Souls’ Eve in the Dark Ages.

The same small cakes had been assimilated into Christian symbolism by the eighth century, when they would be used to pay visiting beggars on All Souls’ Eve for their promises of prayers for departed family members. By the nineteenth century, children from poor families would go into the streets to beg for these ‘soul cakes.’ The practice came to be known as ‘souling’ and would often be accompanied by a simple souling song.

Soul, Soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul Cake, soul cake, please good missus, 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, and three for Him who made us all.

I have to include this version of a traditional souling song by Sting, not for any special musical considerations but purely because it was filmed inside Durham Cathedral (where I was married).

This year, I wanted to make my own soul cakes to share with family and friends. Variously described as sweet bread, biscuits or cakes and ranging in shape from square to round to oval, it proved to be impossible to track down any one definitive recipe. Some sources cited wholegrain flour and dried fruits as common ingredients, while others suggested saffron, ginger or lemon as primary flavours. Many testers of handed-down, folk recipes complained that the cakes they made were hard and dry, things I wanted to avoid in my own soul cakes.

I liked the idea of baking small, sweet bread buns – something akin to an iced bun with an enriched dough and a light, fluffy crumb. I chose to include saffron and lemon for their bursts of bright sun yellow, and nutmeg for its warmth (and because it’s one of my favourite spices – my other favourite being cardamom, which I didn’t think would go so well). The recipe I came up with appears to have been a success – my Nan enjoyed hers at lunchtime today and L pilfered and ate three straight off this afternoon (which is why she couldn’t finish her dinner).

Soul Cakes

15 oz strong white bread flour
1 1/2 tsp fast action dried yeast
3 tbsp castor sugar
2 tsp sea salt
2 large eggs
3 oz unsalted butter
generous pinch of saffron
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
grated zest of 1 lemon
200 ml milk

1 egg, beaten with 1 tbsp milk
castor sugar to sprinkle

Put all the ingredients for the dough in a large bowl and mix to combine. Knead for 7-8 minutes in a mixer with a dough hook attachment. The dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick to the bottom – add enough flour or milk to achieve this.

Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface. Sprinkle with flour and then pat to remove the excess. Fold the top third down and the lower third up (a business-letter type of fold). Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise for 1 hour.

Spread the dough out gently into a rectangle by pushing with your fingers, then 3-fold it again, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise for a further 30 minutes.

Repeat this spreading, folding and covering. Leave to rise for a further 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Cut the dough into equal pieces of about 1 oz in weight. Shape these into a ball, then flatten with the heel of your hand. Place each disk onto a baking tray lined with parchment, allowing room for the dough to expand.

Brush the tops with the glaze and sprinkle with castor sugar. Leave to rise for 30 minutes, then bake for 10 to 12 minutes until golden. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Makes c 22 soul cakes.

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  1. Nice idea for soul cakes. I’ve tried to find traditional recipes in the past and you’re right, they’re many and various and quite often hard and rather dry. I’ve always thought that was either becasue they needed to be easily transportable or not too indulgent (i.e. good for the soul).
    I’m very impressed that you got married in Durham Cathedral – what a wonderful building.

    • Durham Cathedral is a very special place – and you get to see quite a bit of it in that video … the Frosterly marble, the Rose window, the clock with the thistle, the carved pillars. My Dad wanted to walk me in up the entire length of the nave … so we did. It’s just as well that the St Anne Prelude goes on for a bit or we’d have ended our hike in silence!

  2. Dad

     /  November 3, 2011

    Ah yes – I remember it well.
    I was determined to walk the whole way because a Yorkshireman wants value for his hard earned brass.

    I must say, too, that your Soul Cakes were lovely. I even suspected a touch of lemon in the taste.


  3. Well, I hope you are moved in now and all is going well.
    The Soul Cakes is such a good idea. . But if the recipes are dry and hard, I guess deciding to change the traditional treat to say… chocolate sweeties, you can understand why the the hard and dry bun lost out! I like Phil’s idea that the dry and hard bun is good for the soul intentionally, therefore, it is not just a cranky ill-mannered recipe.
    What a fantastic venue for your wedding and to make a grand long entrance! Did you get to use the church organ for the wedding? I bet that thundered a good tune. Oh, and the Durham church bells ringing must have been dreamy magical!

    • The move is nearly complete now … considering we’re only going half a mile up the road in the same village, it seems to have been an awful lot of effort!
      Yes, we had the full glory of the cathedral organ – James Lancelot played for us, so we were lucky to be able to ask for all the Bach we wanted. As for the bells … they were rung by friends and sounded as well as they could ever sound (not wanting to be too rude about them (the bells, that is – not the ringers!), but they’re not known for being entirely worth the long, long walk up the tower!).


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