Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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Soul Cakes: An Old Tradition and a New Recipe

Image via Lavender and Lovage 

God bless the master of this house,
The misteress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.

-“Souling Song,” 1891

Before Halloween candy, there were soul cakes. Wholesome and laced with warming spices and fruits, they were traditionally given to soulers, who would go door to door at this time to pray for the household in return, as well as costumed mummers. In some places, soul papers – prayer requests for living and dead family members – would be given along with the cakes. Before the 8th century, the lineage of this tradition is murky as a fog-laden autumn night, but it certainly bears elements of pre-Christian beliefs about the dark part of the year and wandering spirits.

In Lancashire, England, they were called harcakes. “Har” is likely a derivative of hearg, an Old English word indicating an outdoor stone altar for honoring deities and/or ancestors; the Old Norse cognate is hörgr. This suggests that an early ancestor of these cakes may have been given on an altar as an offering.

Everyone has their own soul cake recipe. An old recipe, possibly from the 19th century, is as follows:

3/4 lb. flour; 1/2 teaspoonful cinnamon; 1/2 teaspoonful mixed spice; pinch nutmeg; 6 oz. sugar; 6oz butter; 1 egg; 1 1/2 teaspoonfuls vinegar

Mix dry ingredients, rub in fat, drop in egg and vinegar and knead till soft. Roll out 1/4 inch thick, cut into rounds with a big cutter, bake in moderate oven for 15 or 20 minutes, until slightly coloured.

My own recipe is a modified version of this pumpkin apple cookie recipe. Each ingredient has its symbolism:

  • Pumpkins are vessels and connected in English and American lore to the human head (the seat of the soul, in many cultures) – think of the Headless Horseman, the nursery rhyme “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” the scarecrow in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Featherhead,” and the tradition of the Jack o’ Lantern
  • Apples symbolize health and longevity in European culture (Idun’s apples being a prime example); also, apples are mentioned in several souling songs, and many varieties are harvested throughout the fall
  • Honey is another sweet symbol of longevity
  • Warming spices, such as ginger, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon, are popular ingredients during fall and winter because they are comforting and balancing against the cold, with which spirits are often associated, and from which they may suffer, given their tendency to draw near hearths when visiting

Altogether, these cakes offer warmth, comfort, and sweetness to both the living and the dead. Enjoy them yourself; share with loved ones, friends, and strangers; leave them on your altars for passing spirits to partake.

The Cunning Wife’s Soul Cakes

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup pureed pumpkin
  • ¼ cup applesauce
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ¾ cup diced apple (optional)
  • 1 tbsp honey

Directions

 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Mix pumpkin puree, applesauce, butter, and vanilla until evenly distributed.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients (flour, spices, and baking soda).
  4. Add dry ingredients to pumpkin mix, then add honey and the diced apple.
  5. Scoop into dollops on a foil-lined or lightly greased cookie sheet.
  6. Bake for 12-15 min. and enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, spirit worker and traveler, and folk magic practitioner guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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