Soul Cakes

The first time I heard of “soul cakes” was in a Kerry Greenwood novel – one of the Corinna Chapman mysteries (I can’t remember which one). Anyways, in that book, which is set around Halloween, a mysterious voice is heard wandering the laneways of Melbourne singing:

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!

I did, of course, google it at the time, made a mental note to find a recipe and bake them for Halloween the following year, and then completely forgot about it.

This year, though, I remembered.

Soul cakes, which probably originated in Britain and Ireland during the middle ages, have long been a traditional part of Samhain celebrations as a gift for the spirits of departed loved ones. Later, soul cakes were adapted by Christians and were given in alms (hence the cross on the top) to those who went “souling” where children, often in disguise, would go begging from door to door swapping a prayer for a soul cake. It’s from this that we get the practice of trick or treating. (For more random trivia on the history of Halloween, check out this post.)

The soul cakes themselves are more of a biscuit than a cake and are full of spices and fruits. In the northeast of England, they were known as Harcakes, or Soul-Mass Cake and was more like thin parkin – another treat associated with this time of the year.

Anyways, the recipe I used (by Helen Goh) is below. It has some orange zest in it and brandy although neither of these ingredients is traditional. You could use rum if you wanted or whisky, or a little orange juice if you’re serving to children. You’ll need a biscuit cutter – I used a 7cm one with crimped edges.

Finally, before we start, a note on icing sugar. Rather than sift it (I’m way too impatient) I blitz it in the bowl of my mini processor thingie. Don’t, however, be tempted to just dump the icing sugar in without sifting it or you’ll end up with little lumps in your glaze.

What you need

  • 25g currants
  • 25g sultanas
  • 50ml brandy
  • 250g plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 1 tbsp mixed spice
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 100g caster sugar
  • finely grated zest of 1 large orange
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 30ml full-cream milk
  • For the glaze
  • 80g icing (powdered) sugar, sifted
  • 20g softened butter
  • 2 tsp brandy
  • 2 tsp water

Place the currants, sultanas and brandy in a small saucepan and place over low heat for a few minutes until the alcohol has nearly evaporated. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Tip the flour, mixed spice and salt into a medium bowl and stir to combine. Put this to one side for now.

Place the butter, sugar and orange zest in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed for about 2 minutes until light and creamy. Add the yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. If these have been at room temperature they should mix in okay without splitting.

On low speed, add the dry ingredients in three batches, followed by the milk and the dried fruit. Take care not to overmix – you really just want to bring the dough together. Turn out onto your clean bench – it will be quite soft – and knead lightly for a few seconds to form a ball.

Place the ball between two sheets of baking paper, press to flatten slightly, then roll evenly to a thickness of about 1cm. Keeping the dough between the baking paper, transfer to a baking tray and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or so.

While your dough is in the fridge line a baking tray with baking paper.

Remove the dough from the fridge and use your biscuit cutter to stamp out the circles. Place on your prepared tray, a few cms apart. Roll the dough offcuts in a ball, roll out as you did before and stamp out more biscuits.

Using a small knife, score a cross on each biscuit (as though you are dividing the biscuits into quarters but don’t cut all the way through). Place the tray in the fridge for the biscuits to chill for 30 minutes.

Use this time to preheat your oven – to 170C fan or 190C conventional – and when ready, bake the biscuits for 22-25 minutes. They should be light golden brown.

While they’re baking you can prepare your glaze by combining all the ingredients in a small bowl and beating until smooth. The consistency should be like runny honey.

Once the biscuits are cooked, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool on the tray for 2 minutes, then use a small pastry brush to dab the glaze thickly on top of each biscuit. Allow the biscuits to cool and the glaze to set before serving.

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, 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
Three for Him who made us all.

[Verse 1]
God bless the master of this house, 
The misteress also, 
And all the little children 
That round your table grow. 
Likewise young men and maidens, 
Your cattle and your store; 
And all that dwells within your gates, 
We wish you ten times more.

[Verse 2]
Down into the cellar, 
And see what you can find, 
If the barrels are not empty, 
We hope you will prove kind. 
We hope you will prove kind, 
With your apples and strong beer, 
And we’ll come no more a-souling 
Till this time next year.

[Verse 3]
The lanes are very dirty, 
My shoes are very thin, 
I’ve got a little pocket 
To put a penny in. 
If you haven’t got a penny, 
A ha’penny will do; 
If you haven’t get a ha’penny, 
It’s God bless you

Author: Jo

Author, baker, sunrise chaser

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