Please Good Missus, a soul cake!

By Christine Boyett Barr

Forget the twelve days of Christmas – did you know there are three days of Halloweentide? Starting with All Hallow’s Eve on October 31st, Halloweentide also encompassed All Saints Day on November 1st, and wrapped up with All Souls Day on the 2nd. In a precursor to trick or treating, mummers, children, and sometimes the poor would go from house to house, and sing for a soul cake. 
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.— Traditional chorus of the song as sung in the late nineteenth century (writer unknown)

Song published in 1893 by folklorist Lucy Broadwood

Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, a 1604 cookbook,  gives a recipe for the treat: “Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit.”  Luckily, we have modern adaptations of the recipe, so you won’t have to worry about saving ale barme (a kind of yeast) from your ale making.

The following recipe is from Gode Cookery: 
Gode Cookery Soul Cakes

  • 1/2 cup ale
  • 1 tsp. yeast
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. each nutmeg, clove, & mace
  • 1/2 tsp. saffron
  • 3/4 to 1 cup dried fruit
  • 1 Tbl. sweet butter
  • 1/2 cup dry sack sherry

Dissolve the yeast in the ale (this makes the “ale barme” of the original recipe); set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Make a well (a depression, or hollow area in the center of the dry ingredients) in the flour/sugar mixture and pour in the ale barm. Leave these ingredients unmixed so that the ale barm may proof.

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and the spices. When well blended, slowly beat in the sack.

In the large bowl, cover the ale barm with some of the flour/sugar mixture, then add the creamed butter, spices, & sack, and with a large spoon, begin gently blending until the mixture resembles coarse, wet sand. Finish the blending process with your hands, kneading in the bowl until it forms a ball of dough. The finished product needs to be smooth & elastic, and soft but not sticky. Add more flour if the dough is too wet; add more sack if too dry.

Roll this dough out onto a floured surface into a 8″-10″ circle. Use a lightly floured 2″-3″ round cutter to make the cakes. (The earliest references to Soul Cakes describe them as flat & oval.) Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Let them rest for 5-10 minutes in a warm spot.

Bake at 375º F for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and when still hot, sprinkle a little sugar on the top of each cake. Let cool on a wire rack; serve. Makes approx. 1 dozen.

[ed. note: I fell in love with this song when I first heard it on Sting’s holiday album. I’ve since discovered Allison Crowe’s version. They’re both wonderful, we’ve included the links.]

By Christine Boyett Barr

Christine Boyett Barr is an award winning journalist and English instructor, teaching middle school and college English.In addition to her pedagogical pursuits, she hosts movie events for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and portrays Catherine of Aragon at the Texas Renaissance Festival. She is the mother of four, and is owned by two cats.

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A writer and storyteller by trade, throughout the course of my career, I have led with curiosity. Much like Alice, I love the opportunity to ask questions and look at situations through different lenses. It’s a great way to find unexpected solutions or new ideas.

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