Traditionally eaten at All Hallow’s, there are several versions of their history, depending on what you read.
So, for the pagan, they are the remains of the tradition of leaving food for the dead at samhain. In a Christian culture they are given or eaten on All Hallow’s Eve, either as alms for the poor, or as a thank you gift for praying for the souls of the dead. Sometimes the prayers were given out with the cakes, although that supposes a level of literacy that seems unlikely for the period concerned. The poor would go door to door singing a traditional song in return for the cakes.
Whether there was a specific recipe is unclear. They do not feature in the dozen or so 17thC and 18thC recipe books that I have, or in the manuscript recipe collections I have transcribed. They are a rich bread cake, similar to Wiggs, but with spice instead of seeds. In Galen’s view of medicine and food the spice would counteract the cold damp days of autumn.
Elizabeth David, in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery, gives a recipe from Shropshire, dating from around 1800.
I have interpreted and rewritten it, to include a little more information and instruction than the original has.
Yeast Soul Cakes
1 lb 8 oz/675g White bread flour
4 oz/125g Butter
1 0z/25g fresh yeast or 2 tsp/10ml dried yeast
3/4 pint/450ml warm milk
4 oz/125g soft brown sugar
2 level tsps/10 ml ground allspice.
Rub the butter into the flour and either blend the fresh yeast with the milk or stir the dried yeast into the flour mix. Beat the egg into the milk and add to the flour and knead well. Leave to rise for between half an hour to an hour, depending on the warmth of the room.
Stir the spice into the sugar and tipping the dough onto a floured board, knead the sugar mix through the dough. This can get quite messy! Shape into 18 slightly flattened rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Brush with milk. Bake at Gas 7 425 deg F or 230 deg C for 12 – 15 minutes until golden brown.
These can be split and buttered as Hot Cross Buns are.
Elizabeth David reports that this recipe comes from Mary Ward, from Pulverbatch, Shropshire, who died in 1853 aged 101, and was the last person to keep up the old custom of giving out Soul Cakes.