Welcome to Midwinter; the December Solstice may mark the beginning of Winter for some, but for the ancients in the British Isles (and for some moderns like me, as well) the Winter Solstice begins the turning of the seasonal wheel toward Spring, when light, hope and faith begin to shine brighter.
Among the sweet myths and traditions in Celtic lore is the giving of soul cakes. Some speculate that soul cakes are the precursor to trick or treat: children and the poor were given soul cakes to exchange for coins from wealthier folks. Purchasing a soul cake bestowed blessings on the purchaser, and eating a soul cake, in some religions, released a loved one’s soul from purgatory. Since November 1 begins the Celtic New Year and the season of Winter, doesn’t this make perfect sense? It grounds us in the idea that Winter is a time to honor the past and those who have moved on, to make special gifts for those we love and wrap it all in magic, grace and (for some) salvation. Can’t think of a better time to get baking, can you?
So my little soul cakes probably hold little resemblance to those baked up in the Middle Ages. Original versions were probably coarse and much less sweet and fancy—more like a grainy bread, I would imagine. Mine, on the other hand, are a fancy sugar cookie turned little hand pie. I’m sure they still do the job of salvation and grace, though, because they were baked with love and offered with generosity, two constant ingredients throughout the centuries that always work magic.
Let’s begin! For starters this particular sugar cookie dough is inspired by baker Marcy Goldman from her cookbook A Passion for Baking. Goldman’s dough is incredibly easy to manipulate—easy to roll and shape, forgiving of mistakes and absolutely delicious. For the Soul Cake recipe below, I’ve made a few adjustments to her process and changes to ingredients; I’ll note those edits as we go. For Goldman, for instance, these become sandwich cookies. For me they become little pies, so keep in mind that the circles can be baked separately, filled with jam—apricot or raspberry are Goldman’s choices—and presented that way. Mine take slightly more work but who doesn’t love a soul-saving hand pie?
Below the recipe, I’ll give you some pointers on making this a stress-free project with flexibility and make-ahead steps. Onward, the souls of the beyond are waiting!
- One cup unsalted butter, softened
- One cup sugar (Goldman uses one and a half cups.)
- One large egg, room temperature (plus another one for egg wash near the end)
- One teaspoon vanilla and one teaspoon Amaretto (Goldman uses two teaspoons vanilla, but there must be sin before salvation, yes?)
- Three cups all-purpose flour
- One-half teaspoon baking powder
- One-half teaspoon ground cardamom (not in Goldman’s recipe)
- One-half teaspoon ground allspice (not in Goldman’s recipe)
- One-half teaspoon sea salt
- One to two tablespoons heavy cream
- Lingonberry jam (You can use any sturdy jam that won’t run, but Lingonberry or Current work well because they have a nice tartness. That little touch of red is so festive!)
- Coarse raw sugar for finishing
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two large rimless baking sheets with parchment paper. Have ready a pastry board or bench, rolling pin, extra flour and two-inch biscuit cutter.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Set aside.
- In the large bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until glossy and pale, scraping down the sides as necessary. Gradually add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg, Amaretto and vanilla (I beat the egg, Amaretto and vanilla together in a small bowl and then add to the butter/sugar mixture, beating to incorporate.
- Fold in the flour mixture by hand. The dough is quite stiff, which will work to your advantage later, but will seem frustrating at this point. Goldman’s suggestion of adding, tablespoon by tablespoon, the heavy cream is brilliant. The dough will loosen up enough to make a lovely smooth dough, but you won’t inadvertently make it too wet and soft. I used both tablespoons.
- At this point, Goldman and I part ways—she let’s her dough rest for 10 minutes and then moves right on to rolling and cutting. I am a big fan of letting dough chill out, so I made this dough a day ahead, divided it in half, wrapped it tight in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator.
- When you are ready to roll and bake, assemble your board, flour, rolling pin and biscuit cutter. Bring the dough out of the refrigerator and let it calm down for about 15 minutes so that is soft enough to roll.
- Roll into a large circle or square and cut out as many sugar cookie circles as you can. This dough allows for at least one reroll before starting to lose its nice texture, so feel free to form your scraps back into a ball, flatten and roll for extra cookie rounds. Just bake the scraps that are left and enjoy them with your tea!
- Once the cookies rounds are all cut, place a quarter-teaspoon of jam in the center of half the circles. Cover each cookie with a second cookie and use a small fork to seal the edges. Now take your extra egg—maybe add a bit of water to loosen it up—and brush on the top of each cookie pie. Sprinkle with the raw sugar for sparkle. Finally, with a sharp paring knife, cut a cross slit in the center of each cookie pie to vent.
- Bake two inches apart (I got a dozen on one large sheet) for 20 to 25 minutes. Bake the sheets one at a time and turn once during baking. You want barely golden brown cookies and bubbly jam, that may or may not seep through the vent. It’s fine either way.
- Cool on the sheets just until set—about two minutes; then, transfer to baking racks to cool completely.
Note that the prep time includes all the steps but not the chill time. The cook time refers to baking two sheets of soul cakes for a total of 50 minutes maximum.
Soul Cake Strategies
Here is a photo of my roll and cut process.
I guess the one drawback to these soul cakes is that they take considerable work in assembly but, because they are doubled, don’t yield a large number of cookies. I have never gotten more than a dozen and a half from the single recipe. So…..
Make more dough ahead using my chill-down method, divide it into four disks, wrap it up tight and make your cookies on demand.
Or, consider doubling the recipe, chilling it down and spending an hour cutting circles. I’ve cut my circles out and wrapped them up and finished up my baking next day.
This idea of making ahead and dividing up the steps might help you fit them into your busy holiday schedule. It has worked well for me.
Also, if your dough stays in your biscuit cutter instead of dropping out onto your board, you can use a thin toothpick to pry it gently out. This happens to me a lot, but my biscuit cutter (my grandma’s from ages ago) has two small holes in the top. That little toothpick fits right through, allowing a gentle push that always works. If you look closely, you’ll see it in the biscuit cutter above.
These cookies are a special treat—unexpected, visually interesting and hands-down delicious. Short, buttery and crunchy, but not too sweet. They are perfect with that cup of eggnog, tea, cocoa or coffee. And best of all, they will bless your soul, whether you are the giver or receiver of the gift.
Need more cookie ideas? How about Rocky Road Biscotti? Always a great choice for gifting. Or maybe you need gluten free? Try my Super Seed Cookies with Fig Filling. For totally traditional, go with Pumpkin Pie Snickerdoodles. Soulful Snacking for sure.