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Life in 16th century England, Uncategorized

Halloween, With a Medieval/Early 16th Century Twist

Nothing can be worse in college than having a professor who gives boring lectures, who shares no images or tales to get one’s imagination going, who dryly gives an account of the past without ever changing the tone of their voice.I try not to be that professor.

From the Historical Foods website - don't these look perfect?

Which is why this Halloween, I have decided to “spice things up a little” and try something different. Taking a recipe from the Historical Foods website (http://historicalfoods.com), I found a recipe for medieval Soul Cakes, which I shared with my students this morning. From the website:

This Soul Cake recipe is from the Cheshire region, on the border with North Wales. A Soul Cake (or Souling Cake) is a small round cake, like a biscuit, which is traditionally made for All Souls’ Day (the 2nd November, the day after All Saint’s Day) to celebrate the dead. These plain cakes, often simply referred to as souls, were given out to the soulers, children and the poor, (beggars) who would go from door to door during this period saying prayers and singing psalms and songs for the dead.

Traditionally each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes is often seen as the origin of modern day Trick or Treating, which now falls on Halloween (two days before All Souls’ Day). The tradition of ‘souling’ and giving out Soul Cakes on All Soul’s Day originated in Britain and Ireland hundreds of years ago, from giving out bread on All Souls’ Day during the devout Middle Ages (see John Mirk below).

Other, similar traditions, although not as wide-spread, can be seen in Catterning and Clementing – note, these are thought to be all the same basic traditions (Charlotte Burn, 1914) and the Catterning Cake Recipe given (using a leaven bread dough) has its beginnings in the earlier Medieval Breads given out on All Souls’ Day, and should be made alongside these souling cakes.

Soul cakes and breads were often made by drawing a cross shape into the dough before baking, signifying their purpose as Alms for the dead. This particular regional recipe is from the Victorian age, although because of the traditional simplicity of the ingredients it is probably much older.

Souling Cake Recipe

Makes 14 large ‘cakes’

Recipe Ingredients:

  • 340g plain flour (sifted)
  • 170g sugar
  • 170g butter (softened & diced)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • 2 tsp of white wine vinegar

Preheat the oven to 200C and grease 2 flat baking trays

Thoroughly mix all the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl – sifted flour, spices, and sugar. Rub in the diced butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add in the beaten egg and white wine vinegar and mix with a wooden spoon until a firm dough is made. Then cover it and put it in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Flour a working surface and roll out the dough to 7mm thick and using a large round pastry cutter cut into rounds, (optional: use a straight edge to press into, and then draw a cross shape, in the top of the dough). Place these rounds on the greased baking tray and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes at 200C until slightly coloured. Serve warm or cold.

Sounds simple enough, right? Perhaps it was due to my rather poor skills as a baker, or maybe it was because my tongue is used to modern cookie mixes, but the end result was definitely not what I expected. Additionally, I had to tinker with the recipe. And the bake time seriously needed to be shortened. But I jump ahead of myself. Let us talk about the historical background of this recipe.

A bit of medieval cookery...likely, with no Southeast Asian spices

The baking of soul cakes as a form of alms dates back to England and Ireland in the middle ages. With this in mind, we have to remember that a majority of the population would not have had great access to the materials that were found in the Victorian recipe that I posted above. Cinnamon drifted into Europe courtesy of the Ottoman Empire, which procured it from its native land of Southeast Asia. It would not steadily become available in the western world until the Portuguese gained a monopoly over the product in the early-mid 16th century. Nutmeg was also an incredibly valuable and expensive spice from Indonesia, and Europeans sought it as rumors of its ability to ward off the plague were bandied about (granted, however, that many Europeans believed that certain smells could both cause and halt the the contraction of the dreaded disease). Indeed, any spice at this time, sugar included, would have been a prized commodity that primarily only the wealthy could afford. To go from door to door, praying for the souls of the departed in return for these sweet treats, would have been viewed by generations of poor children as quite a good trade-off.

Which brings me to my modern attempt at the Victorian version of soul cakes. I began my first attempt with great hope, although I realized a bit too late that I had probably made a few simple mistakes in my ingredients. Instead of plain flour, I used self-rising flour. Instead of unsalted butter, I used salted butter. The result was a dough that never firmed up. It was more of a goop than a dough.

No problem, I thought. I will just spoon the mixture onto a cookie sheet, and it will be ok if I do not put the image of the cross on them (although, this defeated the entire purpose of marking the bread as alms!). I set my timer for 17 minutes, a nice middle ground for the 15-20 minutes suggested. Or so I thought. When I opened the stove door, I faced burnt, giant cookies. The middle was a little bit fluffy, but mainly it tasted awful.

Not to be discouraged, I made plans to make another batch on Sunday night. I bought all-purpose flour. I found unsalted butter. And I definitely decided that I would set the timer for 15 minutes this time. The result? Better formed cookies with a slightly discernible cross, with only three that were not burnt.

...and the soul cakes were alright!

By this point, I was a little frustrated, but I tackled the project again. This time I set the timer for 13 minutes. And the results? Voila!

With a passable batch of soul cakes finished, I turned my attention to carving turnips. Yes, turnips. Medieval Europeans would not have known what a pumpkin was if it fell out of the sky and knocked them in the head (or turned in to a carriage…). Such a fruit was native to North America, a land Europeans were only beginning to have contact with in the 15th century. Indeed, Christian peoples in Europe carved faces into turnips to commemorate those souls who were in purgatory.

The first thing you should know about carving turnips is that it is not easy. In fact, it is fairly difficult. I began by cutting away the greens, and also by cutting a flat surface into the bottom, so that my turnip-person wouldn’t roll away. From there, I hollowed it out and carved its face.

We had a small accident with our turnip...but you get the idea

This Monday morning, I brought my soul cakes to class, along with my turnip. We spent the morning talking about early world trade trade routes and the quest for spices, early Hallow’s Even practices, and how we are just generally happy that cookies have improved in taste and texture over the last few hundred years.

If you are interested in the website where I got my soul cake recipe from, please visit http://historicalfoods.com/souling-cake-recipe

For another nice article on Halloween and the Tudors, Nancy Bilyeau has a piece at http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2011/10/truth-about-halloween-and-tudor-england.html?showComment=1319773903922#c7461438115855969692

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  1. Pingback: Soul Cake Recipe – Historical Foods | Our World at Your Table - May 11, 2013

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