Friday, November 1, 2013

All Souls' Day

by Sheila Connolly

Haven’t we had fun this week with all the spooky and colorful recipes? And have you all recovered from the onslaught of costumed munchkins (we get over a hundred at our house, and we don’t even live in a city) and the sugar high you got from eating all the leftover candy (you wouldn’t want it to get stale or go to waste, now, would you?)?

But the festivities aren’t quite over yet, because today, November 1st, is All Saints’ Day, and the next day, All Souls' Day—and of course there is food involved. The event dates back to either 609 or 610 (maybe), and Pope Gregory III (731-741) made it official.  It also happens to fall on the Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”), which marks the last harvest and the beginning of winter, when you’d count your herds and tally up your food supplies, maybe light a bonfire or two on the local hilltops. And since Samhain was the time of the year when beings and souls from the Otherworld could pass into our world, of course you’d make a feast for the souls of your dead kinfolk, and tell stories about them. (But watch out for the fairies, who could steal a soul away—make sure to leave them a snack on your doorstep.)

If you read about this, you’ll notice some similarities to our modern celebration of Halloween, including those (mostly children and the poor) who would go door to door volunteering to say prayers for the dead (in the old days, that is—now we call them trick or treaters).  The traditional gift, at least in England and Ireland, was the soul cake, made with sweet spices and marked with a cross on top. (Remember the Peter, Paul and Mary song “A’Soalin,’ which in turn was based on the lyrics of a nineteenth century song; Sting borrowed it for a 2009 album.  The tradition lives on!)

So here’s one version of a Soul Cake recipe (there are many).  You’ll notice it includes saffron, which I found in more than one version.

Soul Cakes

2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, softened

3 ½ cups flour

1 cup sugar

½ tsp nutmeg

½ tsp saffron

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp allspice

2 eggs

2 tsp malt vinegar


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a baking sheet.

Cut the butter into the flour.

Mix in the sugar and spices.

Lightly beat the eggs and add to the flour mixture.

Add the vinegar, and mix until you have a stiff dough.  Knead briefly until you can form a ball.

Dough, with my Victorian hand-turned rolling pin
Roll out the dough one-quarter inch thick.  Cut the dough into three-inch circles.

Meet my new Irish cookie cutter!
Place on the greased baking sheet (some people make a shallow cross on top at this point) and bake for 25 minutes.

If you like, you may sprinkle these with powdered sugar while they are still warm.

As you can see, there is neither liquid (apart from the eggs) nor leavening in these cookies, but they turned out to be fairly light and crisp, and not too sweet. And the dough is very easy to handle, a plus if you’re cutting out elaborate shapes. (P.S. My husband approved of them.)

This includes my new short
story, "That Other Woman."
Available in November.

A New York Times Bestseller!



  1. These look yummy, Sheila, and I love dough that is easy to handle! When I went to Oak Knoll (Catholic School), we always had November 1st off. It made Halloween trick-or-treating even more fun to know we didn't have to get up early the next day...although we did have to go to church for Mass.

  2. Intriguing. Can I substitute for the malt vinegar?

  3. What fun! I always love November 1. Shivers for the day of the deadl

    The cookies look great. Never a dull moment with your posts, Sheila.

  4. Cookies look delish. Like Peg, I went to Catholic School and remember All Saints' Day fondly as a holiday. All Souls' Day we say extra prayers for the souls of our loved ones who might still be in Purgatory, and we always say an extra prayer for the poor soul who had no one left on earth to pray for them and an extra prayer for the next soul about to pass over from Purgatory to Heaven. With all that time spent in prayer, we certainly have earned some cookies!

  5. With all those luscious spices, these soul cakes must be delectable. Hey, how did that jack-o-lantern sneak in there? Thanks for the recipe, Sheila ~

  6. Sheila, you made All Souls Day sound scarier than Halloween. But at least you lightened things up with a wonderful recipe. FYI, I think a lot of soul cakes contained saffron because of the Spice Road trading between East and West during the Middle Ages. Anyway, thanks for the fascinating history, and the historical recipe.

    ~ Cleo

  7. Makes a person wonder how the tricks part got into the tradition. Love your cookies, Sheila. Especially the fabulous skull and crossbones. Was it fragile?


  8. Nice post, Sheila. Love the history of an event! And the crossbones, cookie? Great!

    Daryl / Avery

  9. The jack o'lantern and the skull and crossbones came from Ireland--they've got wonderful cookie cutters there! (And some interesting traditions for using them.)