A soul-cake, a soul-cake!

2 Nov

Things I learnt this week included that All Souls’ Day isn’t the first of November as I’d thought – that’s All Saints’, or All Hallows’. All Souls’ falls on the second – which, of course, is today.

Something else I learnt – with my customary interest in scholarship that leads, directly or indirectly, to food for me – is that there’s a tradition dating back to well before the Reformation of baking ‘soul cakes’ for All Souls’. These are spiced – with nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and what have you – and were traditionally given out around the second of November to children and beggars who would go from house to house singing for them, or ‘souling’. You can listen to a bit of a souling song here, as sung by The Watersons (who are brilliant). Apparently there’s another version recorded by Sting, but there’s only so much I’m willing to do in the name of research, and listening voluntarily to Newcastle’s favourite tantric lutenist isn’t on the list.

Soul cakes – with their connection to prayers for the dead and to pre-Reformation ritual – could cause trouble in sixteenth-century England. In a pamphlet from 1593 called A motive to good workes; Or rather, to true Christianitie indeede, Elizabethan contrarian and polemicist Philip Stubbs took aim at the old traditions, attacking ‘Friers, Nunns, and Ankresses (which were a sort of secluses, or rather plain prostitute whoores, mued up in cloisters, celles, vautes, and holes, under ground, onely to serue the Monkes, and the Abbots turnes at theyr need, whereof I could give you a thousand instances, if it were not from my purpose)’. These people were criticised not just for their Latin prayers and rosary beads, or for their impressive church vestments, but also for the way in which they would ‘give soule-cakes (for so they shame not to cal them) or rather foole-cakes agaynst all soules daie, for the redemption of all christen soules, as they blasphemously speak’.

Now, I’ve long been an advocate of the kind of cuisine I think of as ‘Ph.D procrastinatory cooking’. Chapter draft getting you down? Make a stew! Reading a bit of a drag? Roast something’s flesh! Book review grinding to a halt? There’s a croquembouche for that… and so forth. So, naturally, I thought it might be fun to make these. There are plenty of recipes around, of course, but who better to go to for an early modern approach than the Folger Shakespeare Library, who provided a delightful recipe here (though they don’t give a source – boo hiss!). Other inspirations in baking from history were the excellent @Millicentsomer, who whips up seventeenth-century delights at The Awl, and my good friend @ChrisKissane, who works on the history of food and once made me the most amazing 16th-century Spanish converso dinner.

Baking, of course, has a lot in common with writing academic history. It requires discipline, attention to detail, and the ability to see complex projects through to the end. Unfortunately – for my baked goods as well as my scholarly endeavours – these are qualities I tend to lack. But heigh-ho, I thought – let’s make some cakes.

Of course, being committed to public engagement with history, I couldn’t forbear to live-tweet the experience. Here’s how it panned out, as seen through the lens of my increasingly buttery, flour-dusted phone.

They’re my ingredients. Now, I wanted to get some saffron, but uttered a strangled cry when I saw the price in my local shop. I asked thrifty food maven The Skint Foodie (read his blog!) how I might go about getting some that wouldn’t break the bank, but he confirmed my fears and told me there isn’t really such a thing as cheap saffron. But I carried on regardless, muttering ‘Have with you to Saffron Walden’ as I stirred.

I spiced my flour and added salt. I creamed my butter and sugar (quiet at the back of the class). I managed to drop some butter on the floor, but threw it back in anyway – authentic, innit. Egg yolks were introduced, got on famously, and – with the help of some warm milk – turned my pile of ingredients into a soft, shiny dough.

Forgive the caption. I get excited quite easily.

The dough made, it was rolled and cut out…

And then, after fifteen minutes in the oven, a quick prayer to St. Honoratus of Amiens (he of the Gateau Saint-Honoré), and some truly heroic washing up, out they came – albeit with one thing missing from the recipe.

So what were they like? Well, I hate to spoil the surprise. But I did take the unusual step of recording my reactions to the first one. You can watch it via the link below – but do note that I’ve yet to perfect my on-screen chewing à la Mary Berry

So there you have it. An All Souls’ Day treat for the penniless Ph.D student in your life. And for the souls of the dead, of course. Though if I’m honest, that lot are useless at the washing up.

One Response to “A soul-cake, a soul-cake!”


  1. Historical Recipes: A Round-Up | The Recipes Project - November 20, 2012

    […] month started with John Gallagher at Earlymodernjohn reflecting on the history of soul cakes and live-tweeting his baking […]

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