Friday, October 26, 2018

Soul Cakes for Halloween

Halloween is next week, and since Halloween is essentially an Irish holiday, I guess I’ll have to return to Ireland, if just for a bit.

It began as a pagan festival called Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”—don’t ask me to explain the pronunciation of Irish words, but blame the problems on the English, who decided to “improve” Irish spelling in the last century). Samhain is the end of summer, and it’s also the only opportunity for the spirits of the dead to come back and visit the mortal world. Which is why the Irish still light bonfires to keep the spirits away, and they dress up in costumes to fool the spirits. We’ve adopted some of the old traditions.

Like the jack-o-lantern, which may or may not have been a way to carry home an ember from the bonfire and use it to light your own hearth fire, to bring good luck for the year. It used to be carved from a turnip (I don’t know if they grew pumpkins in Ireland), and one of these days I’ll try to hollow out a turnip (without cutting a finger off). If you think logically, it could also have served as a kind of vegetable flashlight, to light your way home after attending the community bonfire.

And trick or treating comes from a tradition of begging from the rich. Which got me thinking about the 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary song, A-Soalin, (on their album Movin’, which of course I still have) which draws on many holiday traditions. And then, in an aha! moment I said to myself, why not make soul cakes?

There are a lot of recipes for soul cakes, but they all share a basic shape (round and flat), most often decorated with a cross, which may be made of raisins or preserved fruit, or simply incised on the surface. And spices (sometimes including saffron!) which must have made them a somewhat expensive treat. 

I offered up a recipe for soul cakes some five years ago (!), along with a range of other cookie types. But things have changed just a bit. This recipe can be made in a food processor, which makes it very quick and easy. (No, food processors did not exist in the Middle Ages—they were called servants then.)

Before I give you the recipe, I wanted to show you something a bit weird. I was in the midst of rolling out these cakes on a wooden cutting board, and then I saw this:

Tell me it looks like a skull! No, I didn't plan it. Maybe one of those spirits came to check things out.

Halloween Soul Cakes


2-1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter (1-1/2 sticks)
    at room temperature
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp cider vinegar
raisins or currants for decoration


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper (which makes clean-up easier).

Put the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, spices and salt) into the bowl of your food processor and pulse to mix.

Cut the butter into pieces. Add to the dry ingredients and pulse until the mixture looks like cornmeal.

Leave the processor running and add the beaten egg and vinegar through the hole at the top. Pulse until well combined.

Turn the mixture out into a bowl and press into a ball (the dough will be thick). Cover the bowl and chill for 20 minutes.

Flour a clean flat surface and roll out the dough to 1/4 inch. Cut into two-inch circles.

You can use the handle of a wooden spoon to press a cross into the top of each cake (if you want). Place the cakes on the lined cookie sheets and press the raisins (I used currants because they’re smaller. Warning: putting the currants on the cookies is the most time-consuming part of making these!) into the cross on top. You can combine the scraps and keep rolling them out until you run out of dough. The dough rolls out nicely, I have to say.

Bake one sheet at a time for 12-15 minutes, until the tops are just beginning to turn golden. 

Makes 24 two-inch cookies. These will keep for a week in a sealed container (if you haven’t eaten them all!).

Nipped in the Bud, coming Monday, October 29, in trade paperback and e-book formats!


  1. It does look like a skull! Thank you for the recipe.

  2. Chuckled at the coincidence of the unintentional flour image. Have never come across a soul cake and am intrigued. Tis the season for baking with spices and I will try to keep this treat in mind when I next feel like baking.

  3. Never heard of soul cakes. And the flour image. . . (spooky music). I'm laughing at the image of a vegetable flashlight. Don't give me ideas.

  4. Thank you for the recipe and the bits of history on Halloween. The Irish have wonderful rituals for holidays don't they? They're always a bit spooky & mysterious which I love as much as I love cozies.

  5. Peter, Paul, and Mary! Ah, yes.
    Lovely recipe. Funny how the little decorations (currants/raisins) take the most time.
    LOVE the flour skull, especially the picture with the unbaked soul cakes!