This was the song which children sang as they went ‘souling’. They would go round the streets, knocking on their neighbours’ doors, in the hope of winning a soul or soulmass cake. This was most likely an early ‘trick or treat’ custom from medieval times and, until recently when covid regulations limited this type of activity, the tradition continued in some corners of Yorkshire. Children often recited or sung this song before tasting these scrumptious biscuits.
A soul, a soul, a soul cake,
Please, good missus, a soul cake,
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us a merry
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him that made us all.
I’ve got a little pocket, I can put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you.
As a thank you for the soul cakes, the children promised to pray for the souls of deceased relatives on All Souls’ Day, which falls after Halloween on 31 October and All Saints’ Day on 1 November.
So, what are these ‘Soul cakes?’
The ‘cakes’ are like a biscuit baked with currants or raisins and spices such as allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger and decorated with the mark of a cross to show they were alms.
What you need
175g/7oz caster sugar
3 egg yolks
450g/1lb self-raising flour
2 tsps mixed spice
1 tsp nutmeg
How to bake
Preheat the oven to 190C/Mark 5. Cream the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one by one. Mix the flour and spices in a separate bowl and add the creamed mixture and currants, keeping enough back for decoration. Mix together and add the milk until it becomes a fairly stiff dough. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to about 1 cm (just less than ½ inch) and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Make a cross on the top of each one and decorate the lines with a row of currants. Place the biscuits on a greased or lined baking tray and bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack. This mixture usually makes about 12 -15 soul cakes.
The practice of giving and eating soul cakes could be found in other countries, such as Portugal, where it is called ‘Pão-por-Deus’ and takes place on both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Soul cakes were found in parts of Lancashire and Cheshire and in the Northeast of England, they were known as Harcakes. I love the line about ‘any good thing to make us all merry’. In fact, these biscuits were often served with a glass of red wine which was set out to honour the dead.
And soon, it’s ‘Remember, remember the 5th November’ …. Yorkshire Parkin