Nutmeg Soul Cakes and Remembrance
According to many different cultures and religions, late October and early November is the time of year when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is seen to be at its thinnest. From Dia de los Muertos to Samhain to Halloween to All Souls Day, we gather together and enjoy sweets in memory of those that we’ve lost and frighten away evil spirits that may be trying to make their way into our world.
This point marks the halfway point between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It is a time of dualities as darkness creeps into our lives and we notice the rapidly growing nights. Remember that this, too, is a balance. It is okay to feel the darkness and to grieve over those we have lost. That grief makes our lives all the richer and is a striking contrast to the joy we shared with those we miss. It’s not something to be feared, but rather embraced (in balance, of course.) With the busy holiday season ahead we will be swept up in social events and celebrations before we know it. Enjoy the stillness that this time of year brings and the opportunity it offers us to re-connect with our shadows. There are, of course, many different traditions that are celebrated during this dark time of the year, but I was particularly drawn to the idea of “soul cakes.”
I first heard about these from my friends over at Gather, who explained that soul cakes were associated both with Samhain and All Souls Day:
“Both featured small round “soul cakes” made with berries, fruits and nuts. And in a custom reminiscent of modern day trick or treating, according to The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, people went from house to house singing and asking for a soul cake. For each cake received, a prayer was said for the dead. And today soul cakes are still part of Catholic cuisine, baked in celebration of All Hallows Eve.”
According to some traditions, soul cakes were left out for the souls of the recently-departed. Others claim you should place them in your fire as an offering. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to keep one aside for yourself as they are quite tasty! I’m sure your ancestors won’t mind. Speaking of, this is an excellent time to incorporate a remembrance ceremony in honor of anyone you’ve lost this year. I find ceremonies like this to be helpful in my own personal grieving process, and they can be adapted to fit any religion. Take this as a basic starting point and adapt it as you see fit.
And now, back to the soul cakes: my version are soft molasses cake-like cookies, flavored with freshly-grated nutmeg and filled with delicious wild berries. Fresh nutmeg and pre-ground nutmeg are entirely different flavors, so don’t cheat and buy the powdered stuff! It’s worth it to grate your own, I promise. Nutmeg is complex and delicious but delicate enough to allow the wild berries to shine. You can use any combination of berries or dried fruit you’d like - I made use of some homemade amaretto cherries, foraged rose hips and black currants, and vibrant goji berries. Please note that your berries need to soak for at least an hour, and then your dough should also chill for an hour. This allows you to take time to complete the rest of the ceremony should you desire.
Nutmeg Soul Cakes with Wild Berries:
1 cup of mixed berries, plus extra to decorate
liquid to soak them in (see below)
3 cups flour (gluten free works great in this recipe as well)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. freshly-grated nutmeg
5 Tbs. softened butter
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. molasses
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 c. milk or almond milk
- Before you begin, soak 1 cup of mixed berries in a liquid of your choice - amaretto is delicious, but orange juice or tea is also quite tasty! This will allow them to plumpen up before baking them into cookies. They should soak for at least an hour. (see ceremony, below.)
- Whisk together the dry ingredients (except for sugar) in a medium bowl.
- In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugar, and molasses until creamy. Beat in the egg, vanilla, and milk until well combined.
- Add the flour mixture, a little at a time, until everything is incorporated. Strain the berries and add them to the bowl, gently mixing until they are dispersed evenly (do not overmix). Place the dough in the fridge for at least an hour (and up to 8).
- Preheat oven to 375F. Prepare your baking pans with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Drop rounded Tbs of the dough onto the cookie sheets and gently press to flatten with wet fingers. Decorate the cookies as desired with various berries in a cross or mandala pattern. Bake 8-10 minutes or until fragrant and set. Makes about 40 large cookies.
This is designed as a personal ceremony, but it can easily be adapted for a group or even for a remembrance ceremony for a particular person. See the notes below for ideas.
Nice papers and pen
Pictures of recently-departed loved ones (optional)
Fire starting materials: matches, paper, etc.
Wood to burn
It’s best to begin this ceremony while you are baking your soul cakes. The time it takes your berries to soak and your dough to chill gives you a chance to get started on it.
First, gather your paper, pen, pictures, and candle and sit down somewhere peaceful. Take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed to get grounded. Commit to being present and let all other worries leave your mind. This is the time to focus on the task at hand: writing letters to anyone you lost this year (or anyone you miss.) Give yourself plenty of time and be gentle with yourself - this can be an emotional process, and that’s okay. This is your chance to say anything you didn’t get a chance to tell them which can trigger many different emotions, from anger and resentment, to joy, to grief. As these waves of emotion come allow yourself to acknowledge them, feel them, and let them pass. Your letters can be as short or as long as you desire. You may appreciate having photos of your loved ones there to spark memories or inspire you in your writing.
Once you’ve written your letters, finish baking your soul cakes as per the recipe above. If you’d like, you can say a prayer over them as you place them in the oven. Once they’re finished baking and have cooled a bit you’re ready to move on to the next step.
Build a fire in an outdoor fire pit. Gather your letters, soul cakes, and any aromatic plants you may want to use as an offering. Stare into the flames and let yourself get centered. Think about the way your feet feel against the earth or the inside of your shoes, and the way the air feels around your face. Breathe. Once you feel still and calm, offer the fragrant herbs to the fire. I particularly like mugwort and lavender. You may speak aloud your intention with each herb, such as “with this offering of mugwort, I ask for the ability to stay grounded for this ceremony.”
One by one, read your letters aloud. Imagine you are speaking to that loved one. Once you’ve read each letter, wrap a soul cake up inside it and offer it to the fire. Repeat the process for each letter.
Now you may close your ceremony in whatever way feels best to you, whether that is a mantra spoken aloud or a prayer or a silent nod. I personally like to say something like “I give thanks for the opportunity to share and hold the lives of my loved ones in gratitude.” You may then watch the fire until it dies out on its own - staring at the flames is meditative and peaceful and may bring up happy memories of those you’ve lost. Be sure to nibble your own soul cake during this time as well - and picture the nourishment of iron-rich molasses and soothing spices and rich fruits filling your body. You are here, you are seen, and you are loved.
As always, if you like what I do and want to support it, please take a look at my patreon page.
If you don’t have access to a fire: you can release your letters and soul cakes in other ways, such as burying them, placing them in flowing water, or leaving them in the woods for nature (and critters) to claim.
If you’d like to have a group ceremony, you may ask your guests to arrive with their letters already-written, or give them time to write them as part of your ceremony. Keep in mind that writing letters such as these is often an emotional experience and your friends may feel more comfortable writing them in privacy. As you go around the fire, give everyone the opportunity to share a short sentiment about the recipient of their letter, instead of reading the whole thing aloud. Some guests may not want to speak aloud, and that’s fine. After each person says their bit, have them wrap up their soul cake and offer it to the fire before moving on to the next person. Once you have closed the ceremony, offer each guest a soul cake and something tasty to drink and revel in the good memories of those that have passed.
If you’d like this ceremony to be focused on a particular person, you can follow the basic structure for the group ceremony (above) except have each person share one story about the departed as you go around the fire circle. This is a wonderful way to have both a private remembrance through your letters and a public celebration of their life.