Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another Food Holiday

It’s not just candy.  Halloween is all about food.  It began with the ancient practice of Samhain.  Held among the Celts of northern Europe and Britain, Samhain is a celebration held when the harvest was brought in.  It included feasts and bonfires offered as both thanksgiving and prayer for enough to sustain them through another year.

But the celebration was more than that.  It was believed that on this night the veil between our world and that of the spirits grew thin.  Ancestors long past would return to call on the living.  Favorite foods and wine would be left out in welcome to these unusual guests. 

As the Christians sought to convert the Celts they instituted the celebration of All Saints Day, intended to replace the remembrances of Samhain.  The pagan traditions died hard, however.  Centuries into the common era, Christian families would set the table with a feast for the departed before leaving to attend the All Saints Mass.  It would be a disappointment indeed if the food were still left on the table when they returned.

All Saints was also celebrated with the offering of Soul Cakes, given in exchange for prayers for the dead.  Soul Cakes were small round pastries filled with raisins, currants and sweet spices.  Each cake would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory.  Soul Cakes were given to those who would go “souling” from door to door, usually children and the poor.  It was a way of maintaining traditions similar to the pagan ones, and offering charity at the same time.  Our modern day trick-or-treaters are their spooky descendants.

Halloween, All Saints, Samhain – they all mark transition.  Weather becomes cooler. Leaves turn gorgeous colors, then fall before the advance of winter.  We begin thinking indoor thoughts of cozy chairs and welcoming fireplaces as we mark the passage of time.  The end of another year drifts into sight. 

There is something special about this cluster of holidays.  Whether the evening is an encounter with the eerie presence of fairies and spirits or just a reminder of the ceaseless flow of time, it is a night that makes us stop for a moment.  We think about the seasons ahead and behind, and we are grateful for enough to sustain us through another year.

Spooky eating!

Soul Cakes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon salt
Generous pinch of saffron
1/2 cup milk
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup currants

For the Glaze:
1 egg yolk, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Combine the flour, the nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork.
Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.
One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won't need the entire half-cup.
Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently.

Decorate the soul cakes with currants and then brush liberally with the beaten egg yolk. Bake for 15 minutes, until just golden and shiny. Serve warm, with cold pumpkin juice.  Makes 12 to 15 2-inch soul cakes.


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