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Pocketable Cakes, by Judyth Mermelstein

Congratulations to Judyth Mermelstein, who was the winner of our 2018 Soul Cake Bake Off, with this carefully-researched recipe.

As an amateur food historian, I am a fan of Elinor Fettiplace, who usually says what she means, however unlike modern recipes.

We would mix the dry ingredients, cream the butter and add the liquids for a cake. What she calls for is to beat the spices to a powder, then use the butter and afterward the (liquid) ale barm to get every last bit of the expensive spice out of the mortar. The butter must be cold because you want it to pick up the spice powder, not coat the mortar.

A lady of her status would have needed large quantities of soul cakes and might well have prepared them in advance since they would be baked in a medieval wood-fired oven after the breads, pies, etc, had been done. That is, at something around 275-350 degrees F of residual heat in a brick oven. “Little cakes” smaller than bread rolls and not too thick would bake enough at relatively low heat, without  need of a rising period.

This argues against the modern idea of risen cakes. While Fettiplace makes “a cake” with a peck of flour and enough barm to make it light, here she calls for a little barm, which suggests her soul cakes are not meant to be light. To my mind, so does the situation: aside from her household who might well have soul cakes, too, the singers from house to house would likely want cakes sturdy enough to carry home in a pocket to be eaten later. The song seems to confirm this:

Soul, soul, soul cake,
Please, good Mrs, a soul cake.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for him who made us all…

In other words, the soulers ask for as much (including fruit) food to take away as they can coax out of the lady of the house.

I can’t swear to it but to me the recipe   suggests something like a spiced shortbread or French gâteau sec – rich but not crumbly – with the butter worked well into crumbs with the flour and a little liquid added just to make the dough come together. The pretty but impossibly tough “buns” evidently used too much yeast but far too little butter.

In her day, the saffron would have been rather old-fashioned and the “fruit” would mean raisins, currants or perhaps chopped figs or dates but she obviously didn’t think they were necessary.

For a modern comparison, I’ve made this shortcrust with great success:

  • 1-2/3 cups unbleached stoneground flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • with a tsp of baking powder and an egg as perhaps equivalent to the alebarm and sack.

The paste is easily malleable –in fact, can be pressed into shape on the baking pan rather than rolled out, cut, and transferred–   and makes a pleasant-tasting, firm-textured rich biscuit even without the spice. I think the proportions would be roughly the same for the soul cakes –less butter than for shortbread, just enough liquid for a stiffish paste that doesn’t require kneading, and baked dry at lowish heat.