Soul cakes: food for the quick and the dead

If you like beer, golden syrup and releasing tormented souls from Purgatory you’ll love soul cakes.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/53/Folio_113v_-_Purgatory.jpg/552px-Folio_113v_-_Purgatory.jpg

People still make soul cakes in Britain today but they used to make them with a purpose. In Merry England – that is the days before Henry VIII deprived us of all the best architecture and fun superstitions by falling out with the Pope – they were set out on the evening of 1 November with a glass of ale or wine in remembrance of the souls of the dead. The following day, All Souls Day, children, poor people and mummers (the medieval version of the village amateur dramatic society) went round begging for the uneaten cakes, singing or chanting:

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.

The tradition was that every cake eaten released a soul from Purgatory. Presumably giving it away to those who came asking for it was also good for the soul of the ‘good missus’ who gave it away. And presumably eating it was a pleasure for those who ate it and good for their souls too because they were helping a soul out of Purgatory. That’s some powerful cake.

There are alternative names for soul cakes. I’ve seen them referred to as Thor’s cakes which sounds very thrillingly pagan, but as the big Norse celebrations of Thor were held in midwinter not the start of winter this is probably a fanciful mishearing of harcakes, a name still used in Lancashire today. Potter fans may wonder if JK was thinking of harcakes when she came up with the term ‘horcrux’, a place for keeping little bits of soul.

There are a variety of recipes floating around the internet for soul cakes. The common ingredients are spice and butter. Some are made with oats, others with flour. Some are made with golden syrup, others with sugar. After I’d made these I realised honey would have been a much more likely sweetener for medieval bakers. Something to try next time.

This somewhat flapjacky recipe (based on one I found at www.historicalfoods.com) includes beer – a good dark flavour to offset the sweetness and spice, and a reminder of the drink set out for the souls of the dead.

60g unsalted butter (at room temperature, not straight from the fridge)
500g oatmeal
350 ml golden syrup
2tsp ground ginger
½ tsp allspice
1 egg, beaten
200ml dark ale (maybe a bit more)

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a shallow baking tray and line it with baking parchment.

Rub the butter into the oatmeal. Unlike rubbing butter into flour this does not result in something that looks like fine breadcrumbs, rather something that looks and feels a lot like wet sand. Sprinkle in the spice and add the syrup. Stir vigorously to get the syrup evenly distributed. Finally add the beaten egg and beer and stir vigorously again until you have an even, thick batter. Pour this into your baking tray and stick it in the oven.

After forty-five minutes take the tray out and use a table knife to score lines horizontally and vertically across the cake about 5cm apart.

soul cake or harcake

The whole soul cake

Return the cake to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes.

Remove and cool for at least half an hour before turning out of the tray. When the cake has completely cooled cut it into small squares. If you have your lines nicely spaced you will end up with a cross over each square – the sign of food destined to be given away as alms.

Store the pieces for 3 days or longer in an airtight tin to let the flavours settle and combine. If you make it today it will just be ready in time for All Souls’ Day on Friday

soul cake

Soul-sized bites.

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