The old English custom of “soul-caking,” or “souling,” originated in pre-Reformation days, when singers went about on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1 and 2, to beg for cakes in remembrance of the dead.
The “soulers,” as the singers were called, droned out their ditties repeatedly, tonelessly, without pause or variation. Doubtless Shakespeare was familiar with the whining songs because Speed, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, observes tartly that one of the “special marks” of a man in love is “to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.”
All hallows e’en, or eve, a night of pranks and fun in North Country homes, was celebrated with many wholesome games. Young people, for example, read future events from the way roasting chestnuts sputtered and jumped next to the red-hot coals. They bobbed for apples and flung snakelike apple parings behind themselves, to learn the initials of future mates. Our British ancestors brought these old folk practices to the New World, where generations of adolescents have observed them on the night that witches traditionally ride broomsticks and hobgoblins venture abroad.
Soul cakes and souling customs vary from county to county, but souling practices always flourished best along the Welsh border. Even there, the custom is rapidly dying out. In hamlets of Shropshire and Cheshire, in parts of the Midlands, and Lancashire one sometimes hears the soulers chanting old rhymes such as:
“Soul! Soul! for an apple or two! If you have no apples, pears will do. If you have no pears, money will do. If you have no money, God bless you!”
“A soul cake, a soul cake Please, good missus, a soul cake; One for Peter, two for Paul And three for Him that made us all”
In olden times “soul papers,” with solicitations of prayers for the deceased, accompanied the cakes which were given to the parish poor. Householders, as well as churches, bestowed soul cakes as a charity in behalf of the departed.
Sting performing a traditional arrangement of “Soul Cakes”:
Soul cakes were of different kinds. Formerly, some cakes were flat and oval. Others were plump and bunlike. There was a spiced-sweetened variety and the sort that resembled a small fruitcake. All were rich with milk and eggs. Soul cakes as adapted to American tastes from early English recipes make delicate tea-time or party buns. Instead of the saffron and allspice of the original cakes, use a few drops of yellow vegetable coloring as well as nutmeg and cinnamon. The following recipe is an adaptation of an old Shropshire formula. The light fluffy buns, delicious for any occasion, are especially appropriate for Halloween. Serve them hot, with plenty of butter and strawberry or raspberry jam. Accompany them with mugs of cider; or with hot chocolate, topped with marshmallows, for the young; or with coffee or tea for those who are older.
SOUL CAKES RECIPE
Traditional Soul Cake Recipe
Recipe adapted from: recipewise
Makes about 24 large, 3 1/2-inch ‘cakes’
2 1/2 cups (340 grams) all-purpose flour, sifted
3/4 cup (170 grams) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (170 grams) butter
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp of apple cider vinegar
1.Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bow. Work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add the egg and vinegar Thoroughly mix all the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl sifted flour, spices, and sugar. Rub in the diced butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add in the beaten egg and vinegar and mix with a wooden spoon until it comes together into a ball. The dough will be firm. Use your hands to press the dough together into a ball, if necessary. Cover the bowl and chill for 20 minutes.
3.Lightly flour a clean, flat surface and roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into large rounds using a cookie cutter. Use the end of a wooden spoon to press a cross shape into the cakes. Place the cakes onto the baking sheets and press raisins into the top of the cakes, if desired. Gather the scraps together and roll again until all the dough has been cut into cakes.
Bake, one sheet at a time, for 12-15 minutes, or until the cake tops are lightly golden. Can be eaten warm or at room temperature.
Store in an airtight container for about a week.
Note: The dough can also be made in a food processor. Pulse the dry ingredients, add the butter and pulse until it resembles cornmeal. With the motor running, pour the beaten egg and vinegar through the feed hole. Pulse until well combined. Turn out into a bowl and press together into a ball. Chill and proceed with rolling, cutting, and baking the cookies as directed above.
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When I was a child in Michigan (1940’s-50’s) , we did not say “trick or treat”, but “help the poor”. I have always wondered why, so maybe the soul cakes are the answer.
I lived in Detroit in the 60’s and “Help the poor” was our Halloween greeting.
“All hallows eve…was celebrated with many wholesome games. Young people, for example, read future events from the way roasting chestnuts sputtered and jumped next to the red-hot coals.” Reading future events is not wholesome but engaging in the occult. Hardly wholesome!
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Do you have Middle Ages sources for information on soul cakes or a period recipe primary source? Any help would be greatly appreciated
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Lovely article. I love the song Soul Cake, featuring Sting from the album Carols for a Cure. My daughter asked me what a Soul Cake was, I said I didn’t know but I guessed it was a British thing. Now I know the full answer. I’m going to make these for All Souls Day. Thanks for the recipe.
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