October was evaporating into November. The air outside was noticeably cooler, the brisk autumn wind tousling my hair around my face. The wind was sufficient enough that the trees moaned, their leaves either loose on the ground or hanging by the loosest of threads. I buttoned my corduroy jacket and scurried home, torn between keeping my eyes high to watch for the falling leaves dancing their way to the carpeted ground or looking down to spy the dry ones, deliberately treading on each one to hear that satisfying crunchy sound.
I flung open the front door, the sweet aroma of cinnamon and pumpkin spice greeting me. There on the counter top fresh from the oven were dozens of Grammy’s famous October cookies, soul cakes she called them, and the ones she made every year as special treats she gave neighborhood trick-or-treaters. Her souls were subtly sweet and more like biscuits than cookies and were her way of keeping alive her family’s English soul cake Halloween tradition.
What are soul cakes and their connection to Halloween? Giving out soul cakes on All Hallow’s Eve dates back to the Middle Ages when children went door-to-door souling, asking for soul cakes in exchange for promising to say prayers for neighbor's deceased family members, possibly as a precursor to trick or treating.
Grammy individually wrapped each of her soul cakes and included a handwritten note explaining their meaning. No one was ever displeased receiving one of Grammy’s soul cakes, in fact thy were an eagerly-anticipated, special Halloween treat—much better than any store-bought candy me and my fellow trick-or-treaters received. I’m grateful that Grammy made her soul cakes keeping an age old tradition alive, a tradition I revisit every October and November.
Like many old recipes, soul cakes came in several variations, depending upon the region and time period. Here’s my Grammy’s version (recreated from my memory).
Grammy’s Soul Cakes
¾ cup butter
¾ cup caster (super fine) sugar
3 egg yolks
2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons mixed spice (or pumpkin spice)
½ cup currants
a little milk to mix
Directions: Pre-heat the oven to 375F. Cream the butter with the sugar until it’s light and fluffy and then beat in the egg yolks one at a time. In a separate bowl, sift the flour and the spices together and add to the wet mixture along with the currants (reserving a small handful to decorate the tops later). Mix with a wooden spoon and then add some milk to pull everything together into a dough. Roll out to a thickness of around ½ inch and cut out rounds with a biscuit cutter. Use a straight-sided knife to make a slight cross indent in the top of each cake and then push in raisins along it. Place on parchment paper on a baking tray and bake for 10 to 15 mins until golden brown. Cool before eating. (Makes 12-15 cakes)