Even at its most funny version, Halloween has a macabre soul, and there is no denying it: All Hallows’ Eve belongs to the lord of death, who masters us all in the end.
Somewhere in history, more precisely long ago, at the beginning of the Christian era in Britain, Druidic rites were a fresh and vivid memory, and four times a year, bonfires banished the ill-tempered spirits hiding in the night.
Samhain was the festival of the dying sun god, and its dark power stayed powerful even as the old ways faded.
Samhain became All Souls’ Eve and All Souls’ Day, while practice of gathering round a bonfire waned. Instead, night visitors of the Dark Ages began to venture outside, going house to house. If they were lucky, they would be met at the doorstep with a plate of sweet and steaming soul cakes.
There are several explanations about the origins of soul cakes. Some say that cakes were baked for the bonfires and that they were a sort of lottery: pick the burnt cake, and you get to be the human sacrifice that ensures good crops next year.
Or, soul cakes may have been tossed around somewhere to appease evil spirits condemned to wander around.
By the 8th century, though, the cakes had been sanctified and civilized, and it was customary for poor Christians to offer prayers for the dead, in return for money or food from their wealthier neighbours.
During the 19th and 20th centuries the “Soulers” (mainly consisting of children and the poor) would go “souling”, around the houses, singing and saying prayers for the souls of the givers and their friends, especially to the souls of deceased relatives thought to be in Purgatory, requesting alms or the so-called soul cakes.
The practice in England dates to the medieval period, and was continued there until the 1930s.
The practice of giving and eating soul cakes continues in some countries today, such as Portugal (where it is known as Pão-por-Deus and occurs on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day), as well as the Philippines (where it is known as Pangangaluwa and occurs on All Hallows’ Eve).
This is seen as the origin of the practice of trick-or-treating.
Not by chance, the traditions associated with Souling included Soulers visiting houses with hollowed-out turnip lanterns with a candle inside which represented a soul trapped in purgatory.
In Northern England, people sometimes went souling in disguise wearing long black cloaks, in disguise or in costume, as a tribute to saints or to imitate spirits.
Well, but what is a Soul Cake?
Annoying for the interested cook, soul cakes seem to have been as various in form as in purpose.
A soul cake, also known as a soulmass-cake, is a small round cake (though they more resemble in appearance and texture a shortbread biscuit, with sweet spices) which is traditionally made for Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to commemorate the dead in many Christian traditions.
I’ve read dozens of recipes, some leavened and rising heavenward, others flat as tombstones.
Some are cakey and some are biscuity.
They may be square, oval or round, marked with a cross to signify that these were alms, or not.
Some cakes are usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants.
They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine, an offering for the dead.
That’s the thing about myths: the fact that there’s never a single right answer doesn’t diminish their power.
I liked the idea of a round soul cake, pale yellow with egg yolk like the dying sun itself, or like the bonfires of Samhain.
Like many folkloric recipes, the one I tried was vague, giving no instructions as to forming the cakes.
Mine first attempt turned out hard, very hard, and I had to remind myself that this was about honoring the dead, not imitate them.
After a few more tries, I had a very good biscuit and I share recipe here.
What should you do with your soul cakes?
Eat them, alone of with your family/friends, but while you do, spare a thought for the hungry ghosts who walk the earth for just one night (maybe).
Soul Cake Recipe
175 Gram Butter, softened (6 oz)
175 Gram Caster sugar (6 oz)
3 Egg yolks
450 Gram Plain flour (1 lb)
1 Teaspoon Ground mixed spice, or ground allspice
Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until fluffy, then beat in the egg yolks.
Sift flour and spices, add and mix to a stiff dough. Knead thoroughly and roll out, cut into rounds and set on greased baking sheets.
Prick cakes with a fork and bake (180°C / 350°F) 20-25 minutes.
Sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar while still warm.
Images from web – Google Research