We tend to think of Halloween as a harmless kids’ holiday, a time when youngsters can get dressed up and go door to door in search of candy. The truth is, however, that it has a history that goes back much further and is tied into the changing of the seasons and the end of summer.
The ancient Druids would light bonfires at four significant periods during the year to mark significant events. One of the most important of these festivals, Samhain, was a farewell to the dying sun, a recognition that winter was just around the corner, and a plea that it would return again the next year.
Although the tradition of bonfires endured, particularly in Britain, where it celebrated
the demise of the well-known traitor Guy Fawkes, the practice of people going from house to house sprung up, with mummers offering to put up a prayer for the deceased in exchange for a sweet treat called a soul cake.
There is, of course, a darker side to this practice. Some scholars have posited the theory that the cakes were a kind of lottery — if you picked out the burnt cake, you were pegged as a sacrifice to ensure the next year’s harvest. Alternately, it is thought they were scattered around, offered as an appeasement to wandering spirits.
As the Christian religion began to take hold in western Europe in the 8th century A.D., the observance was co-opted by the church. Samhain became All-Hallows Eve, a precursor to All Saints’ Day. It was believed that, around this time, the spirits of the dead would return, and walk among the living.
In Scotland, for instance, the festival became known as Shandy Dann, where, it is recorded, the celebrations were joined by Queen Victoria when she visited her home in Balmoral. There were rituals and games, often involving apples, nuts and fire, and accompanied by drafts of mulled ale or punch with roasted apples bobbing around in it.
Soul cakes are an odd comestible, something between a cookie and a scone, redolent with cinnamon and nutmeg. They’re also a little less sweet than traditional cookies and go well with a glass of hot apple cider.
Recipe adapted from NPR.com
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. nutmeg, ground fresh if possible
1/2 tsp. cinnamon, ground fresh if possible
1/2 tsp. salt
Generous pinch of saffron
1/2 cup milk
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup currants
For the glaze: 1 egg yolk, beaten
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine flour, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in small bowl. Mix well with fork. Crumble saffron threads into small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add milk and heat just until hot to touch. The milk will have turned bright yellow. Remove from heat. Cream butter and sugar together in medium bowl with wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with paddle attachment). Add egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with back of spoon. Add spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; mixture will be dry and crumbly. One tablespoon at a time, begin adding warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with spoon. When you have soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won’t need entire half-cup. Turn dough out onto floured counter and knead gently with floured hands until dough is uniform. Roll out gently to thickness of ½-inch. Using floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter cut out rounds and set on ungreased baking sheet; gather and re-roll scraps gently to cut more. Decorate soul cakes with currants and then brush liberally with beaten egg yolk. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown. Makes about 15 cakes.