Catholic Recipe: Soul Cakes
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."
Allhallows 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.
But long before the last night of October was an acknowledged time for juvenile merrymaking, the Druids celebrated the festival of Samhain, or Summer's End, to honor the dying sun. This was the season of prayer, augury, and human sacrifice, for evil spirits walked on earth and sought dominion over souls of men. It was not until the fourth century that Allhallows, the mass for Christian saints, supplanted these pagan ceremonies for the sun god. Another six hundred years elapsed before the Druid death-feast finally became All Souls', the day of prayer for the departed.
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!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.
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 fruit cake. 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.
Cream shortening and sugar. Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup lukewarm water to which a teaspoon of sugar has been added. Set aside. Scald milk and add to the creamed mixture. When cooled add yeast mixture and stir until thoroughly blended. Sift together flour, salt, and spices, and add gradually to other ingredients, kneading into a soft dough. Set sponge to rise in warm place in greased covered bowl. When doubled in bulk, shape into small round or oval buns. Brush tops with slightly beaten egg white. Bake in moderately hot oven (400° F.) for 15 minutes. Drop temperature to 350 ° F. and bake until delicately browned and thoroughly done.Recipe Source: Feast-Day Cakes from Many Lands by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960