Soul cake – A Shropshire Recipe

Today is All Soul’s Day.  I didn’t know about All Souls Day until I read about it in my Shropshire recipe books in the summer and I have been waiting ever since to make these Soul Cakes.

All Souls Day is a Christian festival and these days some churches hold special services for people to attend to remember those that are no longer with us.

In ye olden days it was a tradition that the poor would go a-souling and offer up prayers of remembrance for the relatives of their wealthier neighbours in return for money or food.  Then, in more recent years, it was the children who would sing “A soul-cake, a soul-cake, please good missus, a soul-cake.  One for Peter, one for Paul, three for Him who saved us all” and would receive a soul cake in return. A bit like trick or treating (in the nicer parts of town).

It was/is believed that All Souls Day was/is the day when the spirits of the dead will visit loved ones. I like that idea very much.  I am not at all religious but would love to think that loved ones who are no longer with us are still able to visit and see how we are getting on with the ups and downs that this life throws at us. So in celebration of all the memories of loved ones no longer with us I have made these Soul Cakes.

Three of the Shropshire recipe books that I have all use the same recipe, which is credited to Mrs Mary Ward. She is known to be the last person to keep up the tradition of giving out Soul Cakes at her home in Pulverbatch.  She died in 1853 at the ripe old age of 101.  Rather amazingly, to celebrate her 100th birthday she wore her wedding dress of yellow satin and received Holy Communion with her friends and neighbours.  I wish I could squeeze into my wedding dress now! The story goes that she never suffered from a day of illness in all her long life. She must have been some kind of lady Mrs Ward. I wonder if she is looking down on us today?  I hope she is and I hope she is proud that her recipe is still being used 200 years on.

The problem with old recipes though is that they can take a bit of interpreting. Here it is as it appears in the books I have.

“Three pounds flour, quarter pound butter (or half pound if the cakes are to be extra rich), half pound sugar, two spoonsful of yeast, two eggs, allspice to taste, and sufficient new milk to make it into a light paste.  Put the mixture (without the sugar or spice) to rise before the fire for half an hour, then add the sugar, and allspice, enough to flavour it well; make into rather flat buns and bake.”

Right, where do I start?  How big are your spoonfuls of yeast? Teaspoon or dessert spoon? How much allspice should I use? A pinch or two teaspoonfuls?
How much milk will be needed? Rather flat buns? Should I cut them out like scones? Or shape them like bread rolls? What temperature should I cook them? I appreciate Mrs Mary Ward would have cooked them on her fire, but should I treat them like bread and scones and use high heat for a short period, or like a cake and so cook them at a moderate heat for longer?

So the soul cakes you see here might not be anything like the good cakes made by Mrs Mary Ward.

These days I think we might have a sweeter tooth than we used to and I must say these are rather dull eaten on their own. However, with a bit of butter and jam, they wash down a treat with a cup of tea.

This is how I made them (with thanks, and maybe apologies, to Mrs Mary Ward).  I halved the original recipe as I doubt I will be swamped with singing children later.

750g plain flour
100g butter
1 teaspoon yeast
1 egg
350ml milk
100g caster sugar
1½ tsp allspice


Preheat the oven to 220°c, gas mark 7.

Place the flour and yeast into a large bowl.  Melt the butter and warm the milk.  Beat the egg in a mug or small bowl.  Add the butter, milk and egg to the flour. Mix together well until smooth. Make into a ball.  Cover with a large plastic bag or oiled clingfilm. Place in a warm spot and leave to rise for half an hour. Add the sugar and allspice to the dough and knead until well combined.  Place onto a lightly floured board and roll rather flat!  Now I admit to having no idea how flat you should roll these.  I tried about 2 cm and these are a bit too biscuity.  I also tried about 4 cm and these work well as a scone.  I also tried the last one like a bread roll and that worked well too.

Place in the hot oven and bake for about 20 minutes until golden. They taste good warm with butter and strawberry jam.

I am glad I tried these, but perhaps there is a reason they aren’t made so much these days.  They are a bit dull and I have tasted better scones/ sweet bread. I like the ideas associated with them though.


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