With the arrival of cold winter nights, Halloween has long marked a period in which to remember the sober reality of death, and those who have passed. The Christian feast days of All Hallow’s (1 November) and All Souls (2 November) were built upon the pagan festival of Samhain, when the dead were thought to return to walk the earth for one night.
In Catholic England – as described by Shropshire canon John Mirk in his fourteenth-century tract – ‘people would on All Hallowen Day bake bread and deal it for all Christian souls’. These ‘soul cakes’, were offered with prayers for the dead to help them through purgatory. In Shropshire visitors were offered a cake with the rhyme ‘A soule-cake, a soule- cake, Have mercy on all Christen souels for a soule-cake’.
In the Reformation, of course, these cakes came under attack by Protestants, who rejected the notion of purgatory and of intercession. In 1593, Philip Stubbes, known for his puritanical denunciations, scorned the Catholic ‘soule-cakes’ of All Souls Day which, he said, might better be called ‘foole-cakes’, since they were used ‘for the redemption of all christen soules, as they blasphemously speak’.
Yet, as Ronald Hutton has shown, the cakes survived into the nineteenth century, when groups of poor people, usually children, went door to door asking their neighbours for money and food. This tradition, known as ‘souling’, is the precursor to Halloween trick-or-treating. Rather than threatening mischief to get sugary treats, Victorian children sang songs, like this one popular in Wales and the West Midlands:
Soul! Soul! For a soul-cake
I pray good misses, a soul-cake!
An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
Up with the Kettle and down with the Pan,
Give us good alms and we’ll be gone.
Soul cakes undoubtedly varied based on local custom, taste, and ingredients, even within neighbourhoods and families. The recipe I used was based on one recorded in Shropshire (where the tradition has survived most recently) but adapted based on other examples. The result is a fluffy risen spicy cake-bread!
Ingredients (makes 20 buns):
- 780g flour
- 125g butter
- 125g sugar
- 450 ml of milk (2 cups)
- 7g active dried yeast sachet
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 4 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 egg white
- Currants (optional)
- Scald the milk (stir throughout – when it starts bubbling, take it off the heat and let cool)
- Add half a cup of lukewarm water and a teaspoon of sugar to the yeast and set aside
- Cream the butter and sugar in a separate bowl
- Once the milk is cooled add to the butter and sugar mixture
- Once the yeast mixture is cool add to the mixture
- Mix the flour, sugar, salt and spices together
- Sieve these dry ingredients into the mixture slowly stirring to create a dough
- Knead the dough and leave to rise for 45 minutes
- Line the tins and shape the mixture into spheres
- Add currants in the shape of a cross
- Lightly beat the white of the egg and wash over the cakes
- Bake for 15 minutes on a medium heat
 John Mirk, The festyuall (1508), C1v.
 Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996), p. 374.
 Phillip Stubbes, A motiue to good workes Or rather, to true Christianite indeede, (1593), p. 124.
 Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996), pp. 374-5.
 Dorothy Gladys Spicer et. al., Feast-Day Cakes from Many Lands (1960), online at: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/recipes/view.cfm?id=1378 Here is another example: http://allrecipes.co.uk/recipe/8607/soul-cakes.aspx