Halloween is famous for its treats, whether you’re bobbing for apples or trick-or-treating. While the treats we enjoy now tend to be prepackaged candy, the original foods were homemade. This includes the original trick-or-treat snack, soul cakes. These simple cakes are part of the tradition of Halloween, all the way back to the beginning. This year, if you want to get away from the boring, pre-produced “fun-sized” candies when trick-or-treating, try soul cakes.
The origins of soul cakes are shrouded by time and history, obscured by myth and propaganda. One of the earliest connections between soul cakes and Halloween goes back to when the holiday was a Celtic celebration of Samhain. This festival marked the transition from the light to the dark half of the year and was celebrated with bonfires. One storied origin of the soul cake is that they were baked on the bonfires. If you received a burnt soul cake, you were ritually sacrificed. There’s little evidence this was the case, since human sacrifice in Celtic society is based largely on Roman and Christian sources. They had a vested interest in making the pre-Christian, non-Roman inhabitants of the land look bad. That said, there is some evidence that human sacrifice occurred, so we can’t entirely write off this theory.
The best recorded use of soul cakes is from when Samhain was Christianized into All Souls Day, a day to pray for and remember everyone who has died. Soul cakes were given out to beggars, mummers, and children to pray for the souls of deceased loved ones. Over time, this tradition evolved into the modern trick-or-treating that we know today. If you found this interesting, please check out our “Why Do We Celebrate That?” series. We have posts on Halloween traditions and monsters (and Easter, Hanukkah, and Christmas too)!
It’s theorized that soul cakes may not have followed trick-or-treating into prominence because there isn’t a single version of soul cakes. Celtic society stretched from Ireland to Spain and as far away as Turkey. As a result, the tradition of souling, and soul cakes, can be found all throughout Europe, each country with their own version. This makes it really difficult to pin down a single traditional soul cake recipe.
Luckily, we can generalize the basic ingredients. Most recipes have a combination of flour, butter, a heavy hand of spices, and dried fruit. The form your soul cakes take can vary, with some almost like scones or flat cookies. You may also see some recipes that include egg yolks to make them a bit fluffier, though others keep them dense like shortbread. For our recipe, we’ll be using the most common dried fruits for soul cakes, raisins. Not only will these be mixed into the dough, but also used to decorate the top of the cake with a traditional cross shape.