Sweet Soul Cakes

I love the word “soul.” I like the sound of it, it’s a pretty word, a soul-full word. I love all of its different meanings, and the fact that none of them can be precisely pinned down. They’re all a little vague and shifty, but in a beautiful way that makes you want to think about them more, and try to see through the mist. The word has more meanings than you might know, and they all sound like poetry to me. From the OED: “The condition or attribute of life in humans or animals; animate existence; The principle of intelligence, thought, or action in a person or an animal; The seat of a person’s emotions, feelings, or thoughts; the moral or emotional part of a person’s nature; the central or inmost part of a person’s being; Strength of character; strongly developed intellectual, moral, or aesthetic qualities; spiritual or emotional power or intensity; deep feeling, sensitivity.” Þri þinges þet byeþ ine þe zaule, beþenchinge, onderstondynge, and wyl (The three things that are in the soul are thought, understanding and will)! I like to think about soul as some part of you that you own, some essence of your creativity and your intelligence and your honesty and your vision that’s yours alone and can’t be taken away. Some spark that keeps you alive and lively, despite the often soul-crushing realities of life that we all face. A fire within us, that warms us and lights our way and shines through the dullness and the man-made ugliness. Something bright and beautiful and transcendent that we don’t quite understand.

And, of course, this is the season of all souls, of tiny spirit fires in jack-o-lanterns, of ghostly souls all around us keeping us company in the increasing cold and lengthening darkness.

And this is the season for Soul Cakes, a tradition in which small cakes are given out as alms to people walking door-to-door, singing and saying prayers for the souls of the givers and their friends. The cakes are called “souls” the people are called “soulers,” and the practice is called “souling.” How beautiful is all of that? And it happens on Allhallowtide. Good lord! Though it’s a medieval practice in origin, the tradition is still observed in parts of England, Portugal, and the Philippines. in the US it has morphed into trick-or-treating. I love that food might have magical powers. If you eat these cakes, you send a soul to heaven!! That’s power!

This is a slightly different version than most you might find. Most recipes for traditional soul cakes are very old and a bit vague, but they all resemble shortbread or scones, or something in between the two. They all have flour, a bit of sugar, butter, milk and spices. I decided to combine the British recipes I found with some aspects of an American buttermilk biscuit, to incorporate some sense of American Soul food in the mix. In my Mrs Beaton cookbook, the method for making wassail cakes or simple spice cakes is similar to the American method for making biscuits, which I took as an encouraging sign. The original recipe probably called for currants, but I used a mix of dried blueberries, cranberries, cherries and golden raisins chopped very fine. The tartness of the cranberries and cherries is very pleasant with the spices! I used a mix of sweet spices, with an emphasis on cardamom because it’s my current favorite flavor. These turned out very nice! Mild but flavorful, slightly sweet, soft, chewy, and a little crunchy on top. They go well with coffee and tea or wine and sherry!

2 cups flour
1 scant cup white sugar
1/2 t salt
1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/2 t. each ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and a pinch of cloves, allspice, and nutmeg,. You can add more of your favorites! I went very heavy on the cardamom because I’m semi-obsessed with it right now.
8 Tablespoons/1 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup buttermilk or milk soured with a dash of lemon or vinegar
1 egg (plus another for eggwash)
large handful currants, chopped raisins, or other dried fruit of your choice
Demerara or raw sugar for the top

In a large bowl mix the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and spices. Cut the butter into small pieces (or grate it) and mix in with the dry ingredients. Mix with your hands or two forks until it’s quite fine. You don’t want any large chunks of butter. Make a well in the center and add the milk and the egg. Break the egg up with your spoon, and then stir briefly till you have a raggedy batter. Knead for a minute or two until you have a sticky but workable dough. You can add a little flour if it’s too sticky, but don’t add too much, and don’t work to long or the cakes will be stodgy. It’s ok if everything doesn’t look thoroughly combined. Specks of butter is fine! Chill for at least half an hour.

On a well-floured counter, roll the dough to be about 1/4 inch thick. Again, it’s ok if you have some specks of butter. Using a small glass (of whatever size you want the cakes to be) cut out the cakes and move to a well-buttered cookie/baking sheet. Using a spatula or bench-scraper, press a cross or X in each cake, being careful not to cut all the way through. Brush each with a little beaten egg-yolk, and sprinkle demerara/ turbinado or raw sugar over each cake. Put the trays in the fridge while you preheat the oven to 425.

Bake for about ten minutes until lightly browned on the bottom, turning the trays front to back about half way through.

Allow to cool on cooling racks. Eat!

Makes about 30 small cakes

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