Monday, October 31, 2016

This Is What Soul Tastes Like (a recipe post)

Research can take you to some interesting places at times, and it was research for... something (yeah, I don't have any idea, now, what I was actually researching at the time)... that led me to soul cakes. Soul cakes became the inspiration for a novelette which you can find in "What Time Is the Tea Kettle?" and has also become the inspiration for making some of our own every year. [I use the term "every" rather loosely as this is only the second time we have done this.]

I gave a brief history of the food item in last year's post, but I'd like to add to that by saying that soul cakes were made by the wealthy to hand out to the poor in no small part just to show off how wealthy they were. Many (many) of the ingredients were luxury items, and some of them (like saffron) were extreme luxury items. Also, this is, at least in part if not in full, where the tradition of trick-or-treating comes from.

I think this year's attempt, for which we went as authentic as we could, finding a recipe from 1604!, turned out even better than last year's. Yes, indeed, I did save some souls!

Now, here's my wife to explain the recipe:

Last year we made what is basically a modern cookie--because most of the recipes that call themselves "soul cakes" on the internet are modern cookies, by which I mean they are leavened with chemical agents (baking powder and baking soda). There is nothing wrong with cookies, but they aren't medieval food, and this year I wanted to do a more authentically medieval soul cake. That meant making one that was leavened with yeast, which led to the basic recipe that we used this year, which is from 1604: click here. Quoting, the recipe they used goes like this: "Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit."

So first off, whoa, it's like people in the late middle ages / early modern era didn't even know how to spell and punctuate or something. And second, what the heck are some of these ingredients??

Using the Gode Cookery translation of the recipe, here's what I came up with:

1/2 cup ale
1 tsp active dry yeast
2 cups flour (I use white whole wheat)
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. each nutmeg, clove, and mace
1/2 tsp. saffron
1/2 cup dried currants
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup sweet sherry

When I looked at the recipe last year, some of the instructions made zero sense to me. But this year I was determined to figure it out, and it turns out that the ingredients in the recipe themselves lead to some pretty interesting history.

"Ale barme" is now just called "barm" and it is the foam that forms on top of fermented alcohol such as beer or wine: click here. The foam contains yeast, so, in medieval England it was routine practice to skim that off and use it to leaven breads. This barm bread was considered to be very good stuff: "The barm method appears to be an ancient method developed by Gaelic peoples in the mists of time, and was quite different to that used in Europe, which is to leaven bread with a sourdough or leaven (the French call it 'levain'). When the Romans first conquered Gaul, modern day France, they were astonished by the light sweet bread made by the Celtic inhabitants... In England noblemen's bread, manchet was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners' bread maslin was a sourdough." link

And while I knew what the other ingredients were, I hadn't quite thought about what their meaning in the culture of the time was. Spices and sugar seem very common and easy to get and not all that expensive to us now, but that was not true in 1604 and earlier. Saffron was and still is quite expensive, and was usually an import to England (though there was some farming of it within England for a time). There was even a brief war over saffron. Saffron gave both bright color and interesting flavor to foods, AND, EVEN BETTER: Europeans thought it was a plague cure! So it was a culinary and medicinal luxury good.

The first step in this recipe is to get your saffron ready for use by extracting it in some alcohol. This helps bring out the color and flavor. Soaking the saffron in a couple of teaspoons of brandy or any other strong alcohol, it starts out looking like this:

And very quickly becomes this:

Then I prepped the "ale barm" substitute by mixing 1/2 cup of good local ale with 1 tsp of active dry yeast.

I combined the flour and sugar in a bowl, made a well in the middle, and poured in the ale barm to let it sit and proof. Were I to do this again, I would probably use instant yeast because it doesn't require proofing, and I think that might lend a slightly lighter character to the finished cake. Though it probably wouldn't be quite as authentic that way, either.

Sugar was also a luxury imported good in England, and sugarcane was being grown in Spain and Siciliy (link). In the decades after 1604, of course, the demand for sugar would drive colonization of the new world and the enslavement of many people. "Its price per pound in 14th and 15th century England was about equally as high as imported spices from tropical Asia such as mace (nutmeg), ginger, cloves, and pepper, which had to be transported across the Indian Ocean in that era." Sugar was also thought to have medicinal properties (sorry medieval people, lol, you were wrong).

Meantime, Andrew creamed together the butter and spices in a small bowl.

Look into the spoon...THERE IS A MAN IN THE SPOON! Oh, it's just Andrew.

Then I added the sherry to the creamed butter and spices. This seemed unnecessary to me, but the recipe said to do it, so I did. I ended up with lumps of spicy butter floating in sherry. Not a very effective technique, and even if you were to beat in the sherry slowly you'd still end up with this result. Since everything is going to get mixed into the dough anyway, why not just add the components separately? Anyway, sherry was an import from Spain to England, and spices came from far-away places such as the Middle East and Asia (link). I used a sweet sherry in the recipe because that's what sherry was then--sweet and probably not as high in alcohol as modern sherry. (I had a reference for that but don't know what I did with it!)

After steeping in the alcohol for a while, the saffron starts to look like a little sun in its glass.

The beginning of mixing everything together! I covered the ale barm well over with the flour and sugar, then poured in the sherry and spices and saffron. Then began to stir...

After my dough was holding together, I turned it out onto a wooden peel to knead.

Then added in the currants...

And kept kneading until they were all incorporated.

Then it was time to roll the dough out into a disk, about half an inch thick...

That's a closeup of one of the saffron threads in the rolled dough. I just think saffron is really cool.

After rolling the dough out, I used a cookie cutter to make rounds, then Andrew and I marked the shape of the cross on them. After letting them sit to rise for about 15 minutes, I baked them at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes--but they might need a bit more or less in someone else's oven.

Texture-wise, these soul cakes are interestingly different from modern cookies or breads. They are flatter and chewier and a bit harder. These were sweet enough, and the flavors were good, but next time I make them I will put some salt in them, because I think they needed a bit of balance, and salt would heighten their flavors. Andrew liked them and the kids liked them, so that seemed like a pretty good success rate.

As Andrew explained above, these would have been luxury goods, indicated by several of the ingredients--sugar, spices, saffron, and sherry. And they would have been perceived to be healthful, since the ingredients had "medicinal" purposes. So, in effect, rich people handing out soul cakes around Allhallowtide would be like rich people today handing out little goodie bags of Whole Foods protein bars full of acai berries and artisanal honey or something, I think. (I wonder if kids today would even eat Halloween candy they thought was meant to be healthy??)


  1. Aye, kids: up on the hill, sure, at the big house, the Lord 'n' Lady Leon will give ye soul cakes today, but be mindful while you're there: word has it the Lady of the Manor traps men in her utensils, that they may work all the harder for her. Best not to make eye contact, and be home afore the full moon does rise above the barrens.

    1. Someone get me out of this crazy thing!

      Wait... am I mixing genres?

  2. That's saffron or a red worm.
    Amazing how much alcohol is in it.

    1. OK, so--medieval people did know how to tell good water from bad (at least mostly--they didn't have microbial analysis or theory but they could tell if water was dirty-looking or smelled bad), so they didn't avoid drinking or using water for that reason: However, they did see alcoholic beverages of all kinds as nutritious and fortifying, and would have preferred them to water for that reason as well as for flavor. Thus, the use of alcohol in the recipe. That being said, modern alcohol is often more alcoholic than they probably made in the middle ages, because we use science to do purposefully do that.

  3. Cool. Have you ever seen that show about the two people that will try to live authentically for a week in whatever historical period they chose for that particular week? I'd just name the show, but I can't remember it. It's mostly about food. And their stints in medieval England is stunning in it's grotesquery. I'm glad you are having soul cakes and not boiled goat head. The kids probably wouldn't enjoy.

    Anyway, awesome. Just checking in to say hi.

    1. Rusty: No, I've never even heard of it. I think I will pass on the boiled goat head.
      When I was a kid, I saw hog's head cheese being made, and I can't even think about eating that stuff today.

  4. This is some pretty technical cooking for me. Guess I'll stick to my Krusteaz cookie mix--it's all in the box with the addition of some butter and an egg and it just takes a few minutes.

    But I'll grant you kudos for your effort.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  5. What a cool experiment. It really brought out my inner child. I mean, the recipe says things like "beat your spice and put it in your sack." That's amazing. Also, that's really cool that you were able to successfully recreate it. If it tasted good, then that's always a win.

    1. ABftS: Um... That's the kind of thing you're inner child likes to do? That might explain some things.

  6. I remember you talking about that. I never even thought about making them with medieval level ingredients. Good thing you had some sort of translation because I don't know what half of those things are (sack?!!). I think the saffron is the most impressive part. I guess there's still something that's ridiculously expensive for the soul cakes then.

    1. Jeanne: Yeah, it's still more expensive than gold.

  7. What a wonderful post today. I really like the part about the yeast.
    That was very interesting research of the ingredients.
    The cake look wonderful.

    cheers, parsnip