We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

University and City: Growing together

Latest News and Updates

Keep up to date with all the latest news and updates.

North East bakers invited to help 'soul cakes' rise again

(6 November 2018)

Soul cakes, made to a 1604 recipe

Great British Bake Off may be over for another year, but North East bakers are invited to fire up their ovens in an attempt to bring one of the region’s traditions back to life.

Soul cakes were small cakes or buns made around All Soul’s Day, 2 November. A tradition of ‘Souling’, an ancestor of ’trick-or-treat’, can be traced back to the 16th century. The poor would stage music, song, or theatricals in return for a specially made cake. The charitable act of giving the cake would help the soul of the donor.

Although variants of the tradition can be found across Europe, it was particularly popular in the North. The Records of Early English Drama North East team at Durham University are now setting people three challenges to help reinvigorate this forgotten pastime for the region, as well as putting on a free show to let audiences see ‘Souling’ theatricals.

Bakers can tackle a technical challenge, experimenting with a recipe from 1604 which gives only basic ingredients and methods, such that it is not clear whether it should be like a shortbread or leavened cake. Anyone can also suggest ideas for a County Durham ‘soul stopper’, a new version that modifies the basic recipe to make it appropriate for this region in particular. Lastly, the research team are asking people to submit their memories of baking soul cakes in their home or community.

Professor Barbara Ravelhofer, from Durham University’s Department of English Studies, said “We’re really keen to see what the community can come up with. Their experiments with a historic recipe and their memories of soul cakes will help us to understand the origins of this tradition. We’re also excited to see ‘soul stopper’ creations, in the hope that we can make Soul Cakes become to County Durham what Bakewell tarts or Cornish pasties are to their regions."

Competition details

The deadline for submissions is Friday 30 November. Contributions, recipes, and stories will go into a booklet to be published and distributed around Durham in December. The best as judged by a panel of experts will receive a meal for two in a local restaurant.

Souls of the North performance

Anyone seeking inspiration or wanting to learn more about soul cakes is also welcome to attend Souls of the North, a free show of medieval and Renaissance dance, drama and music taking place at Durham Castle on Saturday 10 November at 8pm. The performance will include a ‘soul cake’ song, as well as a medieval dragon, skull-headed horse and dancing devils.