Saturday, October 3, 2015

Samhain and Soulcakes

You wouldn't believe
On All Hallow Eve
What lots of fun we can make,
With apples to bob,
And nuts on the hob,
And a ring-and-thimble cake.
~Carolyn Wells

During the Medieval era, children would go from house to house singing songs and asking for Soul Cakes also called Bram Brack; a traditional treat found from Ireland to Wales. For each cake gathered, they would then say a prayer for a deceased loved one from the family who gave the cake. These prayers were meant to help lost souls or those in purgatory into Heaven. Many historians believe this may have been the beginning of our modern day trick’or’treaters.

Ancient Celtic traditions would couple this with the Samhain bonfire. Children would collect a piece of wood for the communal bonfire from each house, along with any treats. After the bonfire was lit, people would douse the fires in their hearths at home to be relit with an ember from the sacred Samhain fire.

It is believed that this was meant to symbolize the Spark of Life found in all living things, that creative energy that connects us all... as well as our connection to our ancestors long passed and our children not yet born. The Samhain embers were carried home in carved “lanterns” that were made, apparently, from turnips, which is believed to be the first jack’o’lantern!

Hark! Hark to the wind! 'Tis the night, they say,
When all souls come back from the far away-
The dead, forgotten this many a day!

~Virna Sheard

You certainly don’t have to follow any of these traditions though to enjoy this lovely dessert bread. I especially enjoy it toasted and served with mulled cider served out of a pumpkin, so you can enjoy that lovely combination of flavors as well. Here is a basic recipe for this traditional Hallowe’en treat. It is based one that I found in a book called “An Irish Country Kitchen” by Mary Kinsella , although I’m sure that there are others too.

4 cups flour
1 cup milk, room temperature (I prefer to use buttermilk)
1 1/4 cups sultanas (golden raisins, although I prefer finely diced apples)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 (1/4 oz) package dry active yeast,
or 2 1/4 teaspoons, or 1 (.06 oz) cake compressed fresh yeast
1/2 cup candied orange or lemon peel
1 cup dried currants (I like to split the difference with dried cherries,
but currants are considered to be traditional)
3/4 tsp nutmeg
1 egg

1) Cream/stir the yeast with 1 teaspoon of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the milk. Allow to proof (froth). Sift flour, spices, and salt together, then rub in the butter.

2) Add the rest of the sugar to the flour mixture and blend well. Add the milk and beaten egg onto the yeast mixture and combine with flour mixture.

3) Beat well with a spoon or with the dough hook of an electric mixer for about 5 minutes, or until stiff but elastic.

4) Fold in dried fruit and peel, cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled.

5) Divide in half and place each in a greased 7" cake tin. Cover and let rise again for 30 minutes.

6) Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 1 hour, or until done.

7) Glaze top with 1 tablespoon sugar or honey dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water and return to oven for 3 minutes or so to set glaze.

8) Cool on wire rack. Serve in slices, buttered, with freshly whipped cream, or similar topping. After it has been glazed and cooled, I like to frost it with 1 pkg cream cheese well blended with a little apple juice (about 2 TBSP) and honey to sweeten.

Many times small items are hidden in the batter or pressed into the cake, charms or coins typically, foretelling events for that person in the coming year. Samhain was typically celebrated around November 1st, one of the great doorways of the Celtic year, with October 31st being the eve of the new year. Samhain marked the end of Summer, the final Harvest, and the turning of the Wheel towards the rest and renewal of Winter. It is a time to let go of the debris and baggage we have gathered throughout the year, break bad habits, and prepare ourselves to begin again on a better path.

Where there is no imagination there is no horror.
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Now is the best time to let go of everything we've been carrying, everything that we no longer need so that we can find renewal during Winter; healing and new beginnings in the Spring. We cannot move forward if we are clinging to concepts and habits that are keeping us on that particular Wheel of experience. It is also a good time to recognize your personal accomplishments and good growth over the past year, choosing to carry the best forward with you.

Samhain is the time of year when the gates between worlds are lowered, when we remember our loved ones with love and reverence, and perhaps receive advice, inspiration or blessings for the coming year from our Ancestors. Divinations, especially with apples or water, are also traditional at this time. Long after trick or treaters have gone to bed, I can usually be found sitting with my candle, sipping hot cider with a warm piece of bram brack contemplating past, present and future.

For me, this time of year is like New Year's Eve is for most folks. Throughout the next month my thoughts will turn backward remembering departed loved ones and traditions of our Ancestors. I like looking at what I've achieved in the past year, what no longer serves me and needs to be left behind, as well as what goals I want to achieve over the coming year. I'm eager for October this year and already looking forward to all the coming years reasons for Gratitude.

Here in the U.S., the appearance of pumpkins is a sure sign of Autumn, and pumpkin pie, bread, rolls, cookies, lattes and anything else you can think of are seasonal treats that people look forward to each year I doubt I would have enjoyed turnip pie as much as pumpkin pie! Most of us enjoy carving wide pumpkin smiles for the lights we still put out for Halloween. What traditions do you keep alive? How do you celebrate in October?

“I was born on the night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds is whisper-thin and when magic, old magic, sings its heady and sweet song to anyone who cares to hear it.” 
― Carolyn MacCullough, Once a Witch

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