Samhain Recipes

The festival of Samhain is upon us.  For those of you who aren’t Pagan like me, that’s what we Wiccans call Halloween.  It is the Celtic New Year, and the time of year when people preserved food and salted meat to prepare for the lean winter months ahead.  The fresher ingredients and better preparation methods that we have available to us today allow us to achieve better and safer results than those you’d find in an ancient kitchen.   Many ancient recipes reflect the limited means that people had back then for preserving foods.  Food preservation was a major problem in the days before refrigerators.  Spices were frequently used to hide the taste of spoiled food.  In the ancient Roman cookbook The Careful Housekeeper, Apicius[1] tells his readers “How To Make Stale Meat Sweet” by cooking it first in milk, then in water and “How To Make Bad Honey Good” by mixing one part bad honey with two parts good honey.  Roman cooks served very highly spiced sauces with meals for a reason.  One Roman cook apparently complained of his fellow cooks:  “When they season their dinners they don’t use condiments for seasoning, but screech owls, which eat out the intestines of the guests alive”. The recipes in this book are not prepared exactly the same way as they were in antiquity.  Some of the cuisine that came out of ancient kitchens would probably disappoint if not alarm or even poison the modern diner.   

So given that I’m a fan of cooking, and given that some of you fantasy writer types out there might be looking for the sort of things that might have been made in antiquity at this time of year, I’d like to share some modern adaptations of ancient recipes that hopefully will both please and soothe you.

Barm Brack

The name barm brack is derived from the Gaelic “báirín” (‘top’) and “breac” (‘dirty’ or ‘speckled’). This is an Irish version of the Welsh Bara Brith, which appears elsewhere in this book.  Barm brack is an Irish tea bread, traditionally served at Imbolc, Lughnasad and Samhain.  There is a Samhain tradition of baking charms into the bread.  For example:  The person finding a ring baked into the bread is believed to be fated to be engaged within the coming year.  

1/2 cup lukewarm milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon fresh yeast
2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice[2],

pinch of salt
1 egg

3 tablespoons butter
2 cups mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, raisins, candied peel)
1 gold ring (in greaseproof paper)
2 tablespoons icing sugar

Warm up the milk to lukewarm in the microwave or in a saucepan and stir in the sugar and yeast.  Add the egg and beat it in.  Sift the flour, icing sugar and spice and rub in the butter with a pastry cutter or a mixer. Make a well in the centre of this flour mixture and add the yeast mixture. Beat with a wooden spoon until a good dough forms. The fruit and the salt should be worked in by hand; the gold ring wrapped in greaseproof paper should then be added, and the whole kneaded. Put in a warm bowl, cover and allow to rise in a warm place for about an hour until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to gas 400°F (200°C).  Knead lightly and place in a lightly-greased 7 in /15 cm diameter cake tin and allow a further 30 minutes rising time. Bake near the top the oven for 45 minutes. On removing from the oven the barm brack can be glazed with a syrup made from 2 teaspoons of sugar dissolved in 3 teaspoon boiling water.

Soul Cakes

Trick or treating developed from an older custom called Souling. Children used to go door to door singing souling songs goes like this one from Shropshire:

“Soul! Soul! for a soul-cake!

I pray you, good missis, a soul-cake!

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,

Or any good thing to make us all merry.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan.

Give us good alms, and we’ll be gone”[3].

Another, from Staffordshire, goes like this:

“Soul Day!  Soul Day!

“We’ve been remembering  the souls departed;

So pray, good people, give us a cake,

For we are all poor people, well known to you before,

So give us a cake for charity’s sake,

And our blessing we’ll leave at your door.”[4]

The residents would give the soulers special cakes called “Soul cakes”, “Saumas cakes”, “Soulmas cakes”, “Dole cakes” or “Dirge Loaves”. The oldest recipe that I’ve found for them is in a 1604 cookbook, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book:


“Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit”. [5]


Here is a simpler recipe for soul cakes that I use:

½ cup (1 stick) butter

1 cup icing sugar

2 cups sifted flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg or mace

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon allspice

a pinch of salt

a few strands of saffron (optional)

1 egg

2 tablespoons buttermilk

3 tablespoons currants or raisins

powdered sugar, to sprinkle on top

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180C).  If you use saffron, drop a few strands into a little warm water or milk and allow to stand for 10 – 15 minutes.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and powdered sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat the egg and buttermilk together in another bowl.  Beat this egg mixture into the butter mixture.  In another bowl, whisk the spices into the flour.  Gradually add in the flour mixture to the butter mixture to produce a soft dough.  Stir in the currants and the saffron mixture (if used).  Either roll out ¼ inch thick and cut into 3 inch rounds or divide into 18 – 24 pieces and shape into flat cakes.  Place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.  Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until golden.  Dust with caster sugar while still warm. 

Thor Cake

Thor cake, also known as Thar Cake, is a sticky treacle cake consumed at ancient Heathen festivities honoring the Norse God Thor.  It was originally known as Tharf in South Yorkshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire.  Sometimes it is made into small cakes and sometimes baked as one large one.  By the 1800s in the aforementioned counties of Britain it eventually became known as Parkin or Perkin.  Thor Cake or Parkin is traditionally served at Bonfire Night festivities marking the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which is why I’ve included it with the Samhain recipes.  However, Parkin is enjoyed year-round. The principal ingredients of Parkin are flour, oatmeal, black treacle (molasses), fat (traditionally lard, but modern recipes use butter or margarine), and ginger. Both Parkin and Perkin are also English family names (they are diminutives of Peter).  I prefer to call it by its original name, Thor Cake. 

Some of the recipes in this book, such as my recipe for Thor Cake which follows, include oats.  Oats were first cultivated around 1000 BCE in Central Europe.  Oats were introduced to Britain in the Iron age:  Apparently oats were originally a weed found in wheat and barley crops that eventually became a crop on its own.  The first record of the cultivation of oats in England is a location called athyll (“on oat hill”) in Anglo-Saxon records from 779 CE.[6] There is a record of the bishop of Worcester’s oat lands mentioned in a boundary charter dated 984 CE.[7]  It was not until the fifteenth century that flour made from oats was first referred to as oatmeal

The Greeks and Romans of classical times regarded oats as coarse and used them mostly as animal fodder.  The Romans called it avena, and considered them only fit to feed barbarians.  Their neighbors, the Celtic and Germanic peoples, took an entirely different view and used oats extensively.  Pliny records the use of oatmeal porridge by the Germans.  In the northern and upland regions of Europe, oats are the only cereal which will ripen in the cold wet climate. Ground oats mixed with milk, cream or water was a very common meal for working people.

Thor Cake:

1 1/2 cups oatmeal

3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup (8 oz.) brown sugar
½ cup molasses

½ cup golden syrup
3 teaspoons ground ginger
½ cup (1 stick) butter or lard
1 teaspoon allspice

1/8 teaspoon mace

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

3 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C).  Soak the oats in the milk in a small bowl for a half hour.  Whisk together the rest of the dry ingredients in a larger bowl. Stir the brown sugar and the egg together in another large bowl.  In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and stir in the molasses and golden syrup.  Mix the butter/syrup mixture to the brown sugar mixture.  Stir in the dry ingredients until just blended.  Place in a well-greased 9” X 11” pan.  Bake for about 45 minutes or until the cake starts to come away from the sides of the pan.  A toothpick inserted into the middle should come out clean and the cake should spring back when touched.

Alternatively you can roll the batter into small balls, roll them in oatmeal, and bake them on a cookie sheet until brown.

Regards, Charles

[1] There were three Roman gastrophiles who bore the name Apicius.  The first lived during the rise of Julius Caesar (d. 44 B. C.). The second taught haute cuisine under Augustus and Tiberius (27 B. C. – 37 B. C.), and enjoyed the reputation of a wealthy and decadent gourmet. The third Apicius lived during the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 A. D.)  As a result, the name Apicius became synonymous with good food.  I’ve got several of their recipes in this book. 

[2] Mixed spice, also called pudding spice, is a British blend of sweet spices, similar to garam masala. It is often used to complement fruits or other sweet foods. The term “mixed spice” has been used for this blend of spices in cookbooks at least as far back as 1828 and probably much earlier.  Mixed spice typically contains cinnamon (or cassia), nutmeg and allspice.  It may also contain, mace, cloves, ginger, coriander (seed),caraway, or cayenne pepper

[3]   Ibid, pg 187.  We deleted lines in the original that related to Peter and Paul.

[4]   Ibid, pg 188.

[6] A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: Production and Distribution, Ann Hagen [Anglo-Saxon Books:Wilton UK] 1995 (p. 23)

[7] Ibid.

The author carving a jack o lantern


About cuhulain

Kerr Cuhulain has been a Wiccan for 49 years and has been involved in anti-defamation activism and hate crimes investigation for the Pagan community from 1986 to 2005. Kerr was awarded the Shield of Valor by the Witches League for Public Awareness. Kerr is the author of the Law Enforcement Guide to Wicca, Witch Hunts, Wiccan Warrior, Full Contact Magick and Magickal Self Defense. Kerr has a column with 182 articles on anti-defamation issues and hate crimes on The Witches’ Voice web site called Witch Hunts. Kerr is the former Preceptor General of Officers of Avalon, an organization representing Neo-Pagan professionals in the emergency services (police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians). Kerr retired from the Vancouver Police Department in November 2005 after serving 29 years with them. He was awarded the Governor General’s Exemplary Service Medal. Kerr's past job assignments within the VPD include the Emergency Response Team, Hostage Negotiator, Child Abuse Investigator, Gang Crime Unit, and the Mental Health Emergency Services Unit. Kerr went on to be a police dispatcher and trainer for ECOMM for Southwestern BC. Kerr retired from law enforcement work in April 2013. Kerr is the founder of a Wiccan order of Knighthood called the Order of Paladins in November 2007. The Order embraces the Warrior philosophies, precepts and code of chivalry outlined in Kerr’s books. The Order of Paladins is a study group for people interested in Wiccan magick, energy work and rituals related to the Warrior path, focusing on empowerment, personal development and creative expression. The training focuses on the effective use of magickal energy and developing psychic skills. Courses are taught on line through the Ardantane School of Magick, where Kerr is on faculty. The Order of Paladins is constantly developing new rituals, and magick and studying our Warrior philosophy. Our members are spread across the globe and connect through local preceptories and on line. All members are expected to participate and contribute. Kerr is now the National Secretary of the Royal Astrononomical Society of Canada.
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