Friday, October 29, 2010

Soul Cakes and Charles Addams for All Hallows Eve

I fell in love with Chas Addams books the first time I saw them in a bookstore. I was 8. This might be considered odd since the original cartoons came from the sophisticated pages of The New Yorker and were decidedly not for children but I loved them and my dear mother indulged me. Because of these books, I was never afraid of the dark, never ridiculed people who were ‘different’ and developed a very active imagination.

Halloween was THE holiday for Charles Addams. His best cartoons always took center stage on the front cover of The New Yorker’s Halloween-week edition.

Cemetery in the Snow 1817

What’s not to love about Halloween? The universal archetype exists across many centuries, religions and cultures. It marks the seasonal death and transfiguration of lush, ripe fields and the resplendent flame of fall leaves to barren stubble and naked spidery limbs.

In England, the Christian tradition came from the pagan celebration of Samhain (from the old Irish meaning summer’s end) where fires were lit to protect against the creeping dark and the waning of the sun god’s power but also to light the way for the dead to visit the earth. It was believed, in these days between the light and dark halves of the year, the membrane between the living and the dead was at its thinnest –– thin enough that the dead could reach out to the living.

Gozan no okuribi
At the Irish court of Tara in the Middle Ages, a colossal blazing fire was lit to celebrate Samhain and to serve as a beacon for the departed. I remember watching a similar ceremony in Kyoto, Japan called Gozan no Okuribi (meaning send-off fire) better known as the ceremony of The Lighting of the Daimonji (meaning large or great) –- an extraordinary torchlight procession by hundreds of participants climbing up Kyoto’s mountains and creating giant fiery characters to lead the dead that had returned to visit the week before during O-bon (where they snacked on their favorite foods that their loved ones had left at their graves) back to the spirit world  –– it was astonishing.

Golden cakes came into the Celtic tradition as a way to share the sun and perhaps to warm and nourish departed souls on their passage back to the spirit world.

Christianity absorbed the Celtic festival on the last day of October and first days of November and transformed them to All Hallows Eve, All Souls and All Saints Days while retaining some Samhain traditions -- albeit with new meanings attached. 

The golden cakes became ‘soul cakes’ and were given to traveling beggars or entertainers called Mummers who were given a treat in exchange for praying for a soul. Some would sing:

“Soul, a soul, a soul cake,
Please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,

Any good thing to make us all merry,

One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all.”

I decided this was what I wanted to make for my Halloween treat. In searching for a recipe, I came upon a lovely one from Goode Cookery based on a 1604 recipe from Elinor Fettiplace's personal cookbook (that I wrote about HERE) called Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking:

I made a few alterations to Gode Cookery’s interpretation, changing the proportions (after I checked with other recipes of the period that had amounts listed) and adding more butter to the mix (1 T of butter wasn’t enough).  I include the cross variety and the currant ‘face'.  Although not in the original recipe, rose sugar is a lovely addition.  Note the rose scent dissipates once you leave the cookies out so plan your sprinkling accordingly.  In the old days, they were sprinkled then put back into the oven for a moment so that the sugar “will shew like ice”. They are delicious with cider.

Soul Cakes based on a recipe from Elinor Fettiplace

1/2 cup ale
1 tsp. yeast
2 ½ - 3  cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. each nutmeg, clove, & mace (taste the dough, you may want more)
1/2 tsp. saffron
¼ c currants, soaked in warm water or sherry for 1 hour (optional)
6 T sweet butter, softened
½ t salt
1/2 cup dry sherry (sack)
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 T water

a few drops of Aftelier Rose essence or Rosewater (optional)

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 (start with 2 ½ and add the rest if needed. 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 barme”. Leave these ingredients unmixed so that the ale barme may proof.

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and the spices. Warm the sherry (you can use some of the sherry from plumping the currants) and let the saffron steep for a few minutes.

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.  You can add all the currants to the dough and just make crosses or leave a few tablespoons out of the dough and make your ‘faces’ or skip the currants entirely.

Roll this dough out onto a floured surface till about 1/4-1/3” thick.  Use a lightly floured cutter to make the cakes. (The earliest references to Soul Cakes describe them as flat & oval—I have seen them round as well). Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Let them rest for 5-10 minutes in a warm spot (if you want them puffier, let them rise, covered, for 1 hour). 

Bake at 375º F for 15 minutes. Remove and brush with egg yolk and return to oven for 10-15 more minutes until cooked through.  Remove from oven and when still hot, sprinkle a little Demerara sugar on the top of each cake (you can toss the sugar with the rose 1st, if you would like -- as it would have been done in the 16th century).  Let cool on a wire rack; serve. Makes approx. 2 dozen small cakes.  They have a texture somewhere between a pizza crust and an animal cracker.

From The Closet of Kenhelm Digby of 1669 (he was the father of the modern wine bottle):

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La Table De Nana said...

How unique..But of course it's always unique here..Ale in those bites? My husband would love..well done..!

Sarah said...

Beautiful little biscuits. What a lot of work for 12! Can't believe how fast the weeks go by. It is Hallowe'en already.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

The torch light ceremony in Japan must have been an amazing sight just as your cookies are. What sparkling gems. Very pretty, Deana! I love the grave marker backdrop :)

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

I made Addam's Famil cookies based off the Charles Addam's characters for the Tony Awards party I went to. It's nice that the musical characters are based on his original creations...too bad the musical isn't as good. (BTW, these soul cakes look interesting. Thanks for the history on them!)

Lazaro Cooks said...

Another informative and well-written post. Halloween is one of my favortie holidays. I love what you did with these soul cakes. A perfect little treat. Interesting mix with the ale and sherry.


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I knew I would love this post as soon as I saw the title! Thankyou for this recipe Deana! I am SO making these for my Halloween party next year. I would love to tell my guests about the history of these cakes too! :D Happy Halloween!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Fantastic! Finally a tasty reason to celebrate Halloween! Love the Halloween history, by the way. Nice to know this event didn't start with plastic masks!

Stella said...

Hey Deana! I missed you;)
Your soul cakes look so good, and the pictures are witchy cool-very Halloweeny. Ooh, that sounded weird.
Anyway, I hope you're doing well, Deana. Oh, and Happy Halloween, Dearie...!

Linda said...

I love visiting you...I always learn something interesting!
Deana your pics are fabulous!

Joanne said...

What a beautiful description of Halloween and the perfect recipe to accompany it!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Deane, YOU ARE A TRUE HISTORIAN. To find a recipe with that history, this old, and to present it with the FABULOUS ART from the New Yorker to other wonderful works, is a gift indeed. You my dear, YOU are a magician in that you not only give out a recipe. You consecrate it to higher levels by attaching the culture, the era, the people, and the reason perhaps such a food for the body in the past becomes food for thought and enrichment for the present and future. THANK YOU and your visits are most welcome, always! CHEERS! Anita

tasteofbeirut said...

"Sparkling gems" is a great description of your cookies! Love the post and you are right, halloween has transgressed all cultures as it is also present in another form in Lebanon as St Barbar. I am also fascinated with the artist and his exquisite and almost haunting engravings.

Queen B. said...


El said...

This is an incredible post. I love the pictures of the tombstones with the cake. And the history is wonderful. Thanks again for another glimpse back in time.

The Cooking Photographer said...

I knew this was you as soon as I saw your picture on Foodgawker! What a beautiful amazing post as always.


Faith said...

What better way to celebrate Halloween than with a soul cake?! Yours look perfect and I love your pics!

Gemma said...

It is a very nice story... and they are a beautiful mini biscuits!
Happy halloween!

Stephanie Meyer (Fresh Tart) said...

What a gorgeous blog! I see why my plate caught your eye - everything you feature here is so lovely. I'm glad that you left a note so that I found you! Happy Halloween :)

Anonymous said...

Cool! Love that you took the time to make a recipe that was old and hard to understand and made it new and easy to follow! They look great, like something to enjoy with a good pot of tea.

Fresh Local and Best said...

These look like wonderful savory biscuits! I like the addition of saffron and sherry, some nice influences from Spain. Halloween is a fun holiday, I love seeing kids dress up in identities that they would otherwise find scary.

Chef Dennis Littley said...

hi Deana
those soul cakes sound so very tasty, and your images are really outdid yourself with them. So much information as usual, what a joy it is to read your posts, and find out the hows and whys of things.
Great jog with Halloween, I love those cartoons!

Ana Powell said...

Lovely presentation, you are very creative.
Great post ♥

Barbara said...

You and my daughter are a pair. She has every Chas Addams book made. And years ago on a trip to Michigan, I actually found a Wednesday doll in an antique shop and put it under then Christmas tree for her. She still loves it!
Interesting combo of ingredients in your cookie....ale, saffron, sherry and rose essence. Hmmmm.

Becky said...

Oh I love the name ... I want to make them just to say I'm eating souls. Better than communion! It doesn't hurt that they sound scrumptious ...

daphne said...

I hate to say that my Addams book was gone. I lost it! but those soul cake? These are great treats for kids, they look like they are having a blast!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh YUM, this post, delicious in taste I am sure, and in FABULOUS IMAGES, is still us for me to see! Deana,your sweet comments on my recent post mean a lot to me; my grandmother was such a beauty both INSIDE and out, and your complement just made me smile. SOme of my relatives on my mom's side (she is my maternal grandma) REFUSE to acknowledge that I even resemble her; they always insist that I AM ALL MY DAD'S SIDE OF THE FAMILY who my mom's side detested!!!! teeeeeeheeeeeee! So having someone look from the outside in and seeing some kind of resemblance makes me feel good!

ENJOY THIS GLORIOUS SEASON and show us some ideas for THANKSGIVING and the history, as you do so well.