"Soul, soul, for a souling cake,
I pray, good missus, a souling cake.
Apple or pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry."
While it's true that modern man sees time as linear, or as a great line stretching both behind and before us, to the ancient agrarian societies whose lives revolved around the harvest, time was cyclical. The year was seeing as a great wheel that turned through the seasons, and to many ancient cultures, the end of October marked the beginning of the New Year. With the end of October came the death of the Sun God which brought the cold as the days grew short descending the world into the darkness from which all new life begins.
October marked the time when the harvest had been reaped; the livestock gathered and brought in. To the ancients, bountiful grain fields were a sign of health and harmony and from the last of the corn, barley, oats wheat or rye, dollies were fashioned and cherished as the embodiment of the reaping. The dollies were always fertility charms and some would put her to bed until the following year when she would be buried in the new field, while others would hang her in the kitchen to promote prosperity during the dark time to come.
Two themes central to this season were honoring the dead and divining the future. The people of the Birtish Isles called October 31, Samhain or 'end of summer' and they believed that on this night, the barriers, or the veil, between the worlds grew thin merging the different planes of existence making it possible to look through and divine the future. It was also believed that, on this one night, the dead could, if they wished, return to the land of the living to celebrate with their families so feasts were served with extra places set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. In Sweden, it was tradition to draw extra chairs to the fire and set out cups of milk for visiting souls.
The Catholic Church established All Saints Day on Nov 2 to merge the holidays into a day to honor all the saints and today many Catholic families set aside this day to remember their relatives who have passed, by having picnics near their loved ones' graves lunching on "soul foods" made of peas or lentils.
There are many foods central to this holiday many of which, to pay homage to the harvest, are grain oriented. Indeed, the time-honored tradition of baking for the holidays goes back to antiquity. There is something very magical in baking up a special dish for family and friends. The tradition of giving Soul Cakes, a small cake filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon or currants, originated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages. Soul cakes, farthing cake, or Saumans loafs were made for distribution among the poor and handed out to children with "a blessing upon the living and a prayer for the dead." In Scotland, the soul cakes were made of oat flour and known as Dirge Loaves, while in Italy, the food of choice for All Souls' celebrations is a cookie called bones of the dead or "Ossi di Morto," In the Americas a belief originating with the Aztecs that the souls of the dead returned to Mexico with the migration of the monarch butterfly each fall, spawned today's popular Día de los Muertos during which sugar skulls and Pan de Muerto or 'bread of the dead' an anise flavored brioche is baked to honor the dead at graveside feasts.
The Catholic Church established All Saints Day on Nov 2 to merge the holidays but the pagan traditions of Halloween persisted and of all the modern holidays, Halloween has kept the firmest grasped its pagan roots next only to Christmas customs, the most magical of seasons, when the Mother Goddess once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and sets the wheel in motion again. As we carve our pumpkins, decorate our houses hand out sweets to trick or treaters, like all those who have come before us, let us take a moment this month for reflection and be merry! As the season turns and the days grow cool, remember that this is a time for celebration, a time of gratitude for life's abundance as we go into a season of want. It is a time of reflection, a time to remember those who have passed on.
As cultures across the world take time this month to remember their ancestors let us honor the dead. Let us pay homage to endings and transformations as we let go of the old and look ahead to the new with a heart of gratitude. Make time for simple pleasures as you fall back on the seasonal observance. Light a candle for a loved one who has passed on. Celebrating these ancient rituals is a way of attuning with the magical tides, to recognize the rhythms of life, death and rebirth and to harmonize with the world and to recognize that we are a part of it. Notice how the long days now give way to darkness as the evenings cool and nights lengthen. Feel the energy as it crackles in the air sending leaves to swirl at our feet and whirl down the streets. Let your spirit reawaken to the seasons. Let the magic swell within your heart as you bake some bread or sweets for the ancestors who have gone before you or as you pinch off a piece and leave outside as an offering for the faeries. Go for a walk and give thanks for the beauty you encounter. The natural world is an amazing place. Be present and let your heart swell with joy.
Pan de Muerto
Or 'bread of the dead' is a delicious anise flavored brioche used to honor the dead by Mexican families at graveside ceremonies. This sweet bread is a delicious addition to any October celebration.
1 1/4 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup flour
3 tablespoons anise seeds
1/2 cup of water
In a large mixing bowl combine yeast, sugar and water with flour and beat until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 1 hour.
4 tablespoons orange liqueur
1/2 cup of melted butter (cooled)
1/2 cup of sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups flour
Combine anise seeds, eggs, orange liqueur, butter, sugar, salt and 1 cup of flour and beat hard. (If using mixer, fit with paddle attachment and mix until creamy). Add the remaining flour one cup at a time.
Turn dough out onto a floured work surface and kneed. (About 3 minutes)
Place in a greased deep container and cover to rise. Let double (should take 2 hours)
After dough has risen divide into 2 sections. One will be the loaf and the other will form the crossed bones design on the top. Divide as much of the dough as you will use to create the crossed bones. Put this is the fridge.
Take the dough for the loaf and place on a piece of greased waxed paper. Cover and let rise again (30 minutes)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Uncover loaf and top with crossed bones created from refrigerated portion. Glaze with 1 egg mixed into 1 teaspoon of milk.
Bake for 40 minutes.
When loafs are cool you can serve or top with marmalade or decorate with glaze created from 1 cup powder sugar and 2 tablespoons orange liqueur.