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Soul Cakes: Hallowed Offerings for Hungry Ghosts

Even at its most lighthearted, Halloween has a chilly soul. There is no denying it: All Hallows' Eve belongs to the lord of death, who masters us all in the end. We may cope with our servitude by laughing at death, fearing it, respecting it — or, in time-honored tradition, by throwing sweets at it.

Today, we assuage malevolent spirits — the ones in costume, as well as those unseen — with Reese's Pieces and Tootsie Rolls. I guess modern demons aren't too picky and they know how to negotiate a plastic wrapper.

Long ago, however, at the beginning of the Christian era in Britain, Druidic rites were a fresh and vivid memory. Four times a year, bonfires banished the ill-tempered spirits hiding in the night. The Halloween, or Samhain, fires might have been a way of whistling in the dark, laughing in the face of the oncoming cold and scarcity.

Samhain was the festival of the dying sun god, and its dark power stayed potent even as the old ways faded. Samhain became All Souls' Eve and All Souls' Day. The practice of gathering round a bonfire waned. Instead, night visitors of the Dark Ages began to venture abroad, going house to house. If they were lucky, they would be met at the doorstep with a plate of sweet and steaming soul cakes.

Explanations on the origins of soul cakes vary. Some say that cakes were baked for the bonfires and that they were a lottery: pick the burnt cake, and you get to be the human sacrifice that ensures good crops next year. Or, soul cakes may have been tossed around an area to appease evil spirits condemned to wander in animal form.

By the 8th century, though, soul cakes had been sanctified and civilized. They were used to pay the beggars who came around on All Souls' Eve and offered to say prayers for the family's departed. One cake given, one soul saved — cheap at the price.

Elsewhere, they were given to the costumed entertainers known as mummers, who made their merry rounds at Halloween. Today's trick-or-treaters are thought to be their descendants.

Vexatious for the interested cook, soul cakes seem to have been as various in form as in purpose. I've seen dozens of recipes, some leavened and rising heavenward, others flat and dense as tombstones. Some are cakey and some are biscuity. Some are gingery and some are saffrony. They may be square, oval or round, marked with a cross — or not. That's the thing about myths: The fact that there's never a single right answer doesn't diminish their power.

I liked the idea of a round soul cake, yellow with saffron and egg yolk like the dying sun itself. Or yellow like the bonfires of Samhain, from which the Celts would take burning torches to start their own hearths for the new year.

Like many folkloric recipes, the one I tried was vague, calling for "enough milk for a soft dough," and giving no instructions as to forming the cakes. Mine turned out hard, tough and undercooked. I had to remind myself that this was about honoring the dead, not trying to imitate them.

After a few more tries and adjusting the time, temperature, quantity of dry and wet ingredients and thickness of the dough, I had a sunny yellow biscuit with a sweet saffron scent. Studded with a currant cross and small enough to fit in the palm of my 6-year-old son's hand, it felt like a talisman — a peace offering for implacable spirits, or edible currency for the ferryman of the dead. Or — with some Harry Potter-style iced pumpkin juice on the side — an after-school snack for a kid and his inner Dementor.

What should you do with your soul cakes? Eat them, share them, fill them with currants and scavenge for crumbs. But while you do, spare a thought for the hungry ghosts who walk the earth for just one night.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.