When Mary Ricksen mentioned soul cakes in a Hallowe’en blog this month, I couldn’t resist finding out more about these treats that, in the olden days, were given out in exchange for prayers for the dead.

There are about a gazillion recipes on line. It seems that any kind of cookie or bun, preferably with some kind of dried fruit involved, can be called a soul cake. Many are unleavened. I’m not used to baking without some kind of leavening agent; generally, I do fine with baking powder and baking soda, but haven’t had much success with yeast. Still, since I found so many recipes for unleavened soul cakes, I went ahead and tried one, following the recipe fairly closely (an accomplishment for me). They tasted all right, but were dense and quite hard. I gave them a C and won’t bother posting the recipe. (But I’m not picky. I ate them all.)

Next, I decided to try one of the recipes that called for yeast, because I figured (given my past experience) that it was less likely to work for me, which made it more fun.

Back up for a second. Actually, the recipe called for ale barm as a leavening agent. Whoa! Ale barm?? Turns out barm is the frothy stuff on beer or ale (for more info, try Wikipedia) and is the source of the word “barmy,” which I’d always taken to mean “crazy.” Which it does, but since it derives from a word for air-filled froth, I wonder if originally it meant something more like air-headed or empty-headed… or if there are nuances to the word that I never knew about…and I adore nuances…but I digress.) The recipe also used sack as a liquid ingredient. Since I didn’t have the ale barm (or ale, for that matter) or sack, but since I do like the flavor of beer, I used non-alcoholic beer as my liquid.

The recipe had been adapted from an olden day recipe of the kind I like best, where the quantities are vague and the instructions brief. Recipes that tell you exactly how much of what to use, followed by detailed instructions, are far more likely to produce a predictable result, but age has drastically lessened my ability to be obedient. You can find the original barmy version and the adaptation using yeast at godecookery.com. (This is a very cool site if you’re into old-fashioned cookery. I fully intend to explore it more.)

I had bought some packets of yeast but couldn’t find them, so I had to use some old and possibly inactive yeast that had been sitting in the fridge for a couple of years. (Needless to say, the new packets were later found to be hiding in plain sight.)

¼ cup lukewarm water
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. yeast
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (white flour might make the result a little lighter, although I must say that generally whole wheat pastry flour works fine for biscuits and cakes)
1/3 cup brown sugar, or more if you want them to be sweeter
A mixture of ground spices. I used ¼ tsp. cloves, ¼ tsp. nutmeg, and ¼ tsp. allspice. The original called for mace (which I’m out of) and I’m a little tired of cinnamon. On the other hand, I have tons of 10-year-old allspice which needs to be used up. (Or thrown away, but I didn’t throw away the C-grade soul cakes, and I’m not throwing the allspice away, either.)
½ cup currants
2 tablespoons soft butter
Non-alcoholic beer

Mix the sugar and yeast into the lukewarm water and let it sit until it froths up a bit. I have no idea how much it should froth, because I’m such an amateur when it comes to yeast. It has to froth some, though, or it’s inactive. Which I’ve always assumed, where yeast is concerned, to be a euphemism for “dead.” Now, on Hallowe’en it would be perfectly proper for dead yeast to rise…but again, I digress.

Combine the dry ingredients. Add the butter, yeast mixture, and enough beer to make a ball of dough – not too sticky, not too dry. Leave the dough in the bowl, cover it, and let it rise in a warm place for a while. Then roll it on a floured surface to about ½” thick and cut into rounds. Set on a greased baking sheet for a few minutes while you preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for about fifteen minutes.

These soul cakes were both pretty and pretty good. They might have been lighter and better if I’d used new yeast. (Or maybe just more yeast. Note to self: do research on proportion of yeast to flour). I gave them a B and ate them all up with butter, honey, jam… Yum.


  1. Toni V.S. // October 31, 2009 at 12:45 PM  

    I'm writing this down for future reference. Sounds like a mini-fruit cake. DId you see The Letterman Show the other night when Sting was on? He sang a song called "Soul Cake." I thought about your blog. :))

  2. Mary Marvella // October 31, 2009 at 12:48 PM  

    Barbara, I love your cooking style. When my daughter calls me for a recipe, I give her the usual version and my adaptation.

    My daughter asked why her cakes from a mix would be different from the ones I baked.

    Simple, I never use the directions on cake mixes. I add milk instead of water and eggs, at least one more than required.

  3. Barbara Monajem // October 31, 2009 at 2:26 PM  

    Toni - I didn't see the show, but my daughter told me about it. Pretty cool.

    Mary - An extra egg? Good idea. I may try using milk and an egg in the soul cakes next time, as many old-fashioned soul cakes were rich in milk and eggs.

  4. Patrice // October 31, 2009 at 2:28 PM  

    Funny post. You sound like a woman who enjoys her just desserts and who cares about following recipies, anyway! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Pamela Cayne // October 31, 2009 at 2:40 PM  

    Barbara--you sure like your recipes, don't you? But, I'm like you in that I have so much trouble following a new recipe exactly. I always feel like there's something that needs changing!

  6. Scarlet Pumpernickel // October 31, 2009 at 3:05 PM  

    Barbara, you blog was just what I like, a way to enjoy a new treat with no calories! Got the excitement of trying a new recipe, the description of how you enjoyed them with jam and none of the calories! Wow, now if I can just leave the tea cakes I bought yesterday at the Bollouch House alone. Thought about your promised post when I saw them and just had to buy a couple. Great job!

  7. Judy // October 31, 2009 at 3:29 PM  

    Interesting, Barbara! You have a lot of patience in trying new recipes. These sound good and I loved the information about "barmy". Thanks!

  8. Pamela Varnado // October 31, 2009 at 5:40 PM  

    Barbara, I don't do a lot of baking, but these sound delicious. I plan to save the recipe and cook a batch later. They looked light and fluffy. My husband will love the beer! Thanks to that ingredient, I'd better cook up two batches.

  9. Mary Ricksen // October 31, 2009 at 6:09 PM  

    This sounds wonderful. I can't wait to try it and you have made it idiot easy too. Thanks Barbara good stuff!

  10. Mary Ricksen // October 31, 2009 at 6:11 PM  

    Ha Pam, mine too! Beer is always better then yeast!

  11. Joanne // October 31, 2009 at 6:27 PM  

    What a perfect recipe for Halloween. Can't wait to try them.

  12. Barbara Monajem // October 31, 2009 at 9:38 PM  

    Patrice - Yeah, I certainly get my just desserts and eat them, too.

    Pamela - Now, if only I could stick to changing one thing at a time... Experiments with too many variables only demonstrate impatience on the part of the experimenter, LOL.

    Scarlet - Bollouch House? What's that?

  13. Barbara Monajem // October 31, 2009 at 9:47 PM  

    Judy - Glad you liked the info about barmy. I never can resist the opportunity to learn something new.

    Pam, Mary R, and Joanne - These soul cakes are prettier in the photo than in real life. (My daughter takes great pics!) If you use more yeast or white flour, let me know how they turn out. Or try the instructions on godecookery.com - they put the yeast into ale to foam up.

  14. Beth Trissel // October 31, 2009 at 10:58 PM  

    How very interesting! I love the story behind these soul cakes.

  15. Scarlet Pumpernickel // October 31, 2009 at 11:52 PM  

    THe Bulloch house(I probably spelled it wrong! Yep, googled it.) Is in Warm Springs, GA and they serve the most delicious southern cooking, served buffet style. They have wonderful southern desserts as well. Couldn't resist the tea cakes yesterday and they were yummy. Enjoyed on just a while ago.
    Take a check it out if you like.

  16. Scarlet Pumpernickel // October 31, 2009 at 11:54 PM  

    If I didn't change my mind about what I wanted to say and change mid-sentence, it would probably make more sense! Aaarrrggghhh!

  17. Barbara Monajem // November 1, 2009 at 8:01 AM  

    Beth - Glad you enjoyed it.

    Scarlet - LOL. I change my mind mid-sentence all the time, too. I think it must be pretty common -- I come across it quite frequently in books, where the author has changed her mind and the copy editor hasn't caught the resulting error.

  18. Dayana // November 1, 2009 at 7:51 PM  

    Hi, Barbara. Great post! They look yummy and remind me of English Tea biscuits which I love. Dry but great with a piping cup of tea or a tall glass of ice cold milk and smeared with a half a ton of butter. Umm, umm, good!

    Thanks for doing this very humorus experiment. I really enjoyed the read:)

  19. Autumn Jordon // November 2, 2009 at 7:44 AM  

    I love your baking style. You had a mission and not all the tools to make it happen, but you did!

    The soul cakes look yummy. I love to bake and I have old yeast too! So I need to try this recipe.

    Fun post.