The roots of Halloween can be traced back to a Celtic holiday known as Samhain (pronounced: sOW-in). This pagan festival originating in County Meath included mask-making, storytelling, song and dance, and a buffet of traditional Irish foods. Perhaps nowhere celebrates Halloween as hard as modern-day Ireland with carnivals lasting for weeks taking place throughout the country in epicenters like Derry and Limerick.
If you can’t make it to Ireland with the kids this year, fear not! We’ve got you covered with five Celtic recipes the kids can enjoy cooking with you for Halloween. As you can imagine, each recipe comes with a historic story of its own to tell.
The first mention of colcannon dates back to 1735. In Ireland, they say “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Colcannon (translating to “white cabbage”) was a dish that could bring great promise for the single ladies. Young unmarried cooks would go blindfolded into the garden to pick a colcannon cabbage. This tasty vegetarian Halloween dish is made from chopped kale or parsnips, cabbage, and hot, floury mashed potatoes, and an assortment of trinkets. Some legends mix in charms that could tell the future. The first woman to find a ring in her portion would be the first to marry. Others might find a button (to signify another year as a bachelorette), a thimble (signifying you would become a spinster), a rag (warning of poverty), a stick (meaning your spouse would be abusive), or a coin (meaning you would come into wealth by some other means). Other women filled their socks with colcannon and hung them from the handle of the front door, with the notion that the first single man through the door would be a future husband.
Take heed when slicing a “speckled loaf” of barmbrack, another classic Celtic “fortune-telling food.” Within your slice of bread, you could find one of the following trinkets wrapped in baking paper: a stick (foretelling travel), a ring (which means you’ll be married in a year), a thimble (if you’re to be a spinster forever), a button (if you’re to be a bachelor forever), a coin (meaning a prosperous year), a religious medal (predicting a life in the Holy Orders), or a piece of cloth (meaning a doubtful financial future). Today’s supermarkets sell the fruit-studded bread with a ring hidden inside. Sometimes you’ll see Barmbrack spiked with Bushmill’s, but this kid-friendly version uses hot tea instead. For best results, you’ll want to soak your fruit overnight. “Sultanas” are dried white grapes (plump golden raisins), which you’ll combine with currants, black raisins, and glace (candied) cherries.
Like all other autumnal festivals, Samhain is about celebrating a plentiful harvest, using whatever is on hand, and preparing to hunker down for the winter. Celtic parsnip soup is a great way to use leftover corned beef from a celebration, combining it with bay, parsnips, onions, chicken broth, savoy cabbage leaves, and heavy whipping cream. Earthy parsnips may not be something your family enjoys often, though it is a flavorful, nutritious, and all around underrated root vegetable.
Soul cakes were made popular again from the Great British Bake Off competition. This small, round, square, or oval bun topped with a cross-shaped currant design were used in medieval times to feed the poor, honor the dead, and free departed souls from Purgatory. On November 2nd, beggars would come to wealthy homeowner homes to sing for a sweet cake – a tradition one could say sounds a lot like trick-or-treating. According to Dr. Ravelhofer, consulted by the show, “These plays and soul-caking are communal practices that serve community-building, but they also harness the psyche individually and collectively to come to terms with coldness, darkness, and having to die” – perhaps a lesson best reserved for more mature children. Folklore aside, the oldest known recipe dates back to one from Lady Elinor Fettiplace in 1604, which simply reads: “Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, 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 or fruit.” As you can imagine, many a soulless cake has been created in trying to figure out the best way to interpret the vagaries found in this recipe. Here, we cut to the chase and give you one from NPR that will just plain old work.
A warm, hearty stew is a great way to honor the gifts of harvest, warm up chilled bones on a late October night, and nurse a cold all too common this time of year. We love this version of beef stew, cooked up and presented right inside a pumpkin shell! If you don’t have a pumpkin on hand, you can bubble it up in a stove pot, a crockpot, or a cauldron – whatever you happen to have in the kitchen. For presentation, you may consider dolloping a “ghost” of potatoes on top for the kids, complete with two pea eyes.
No matter what religion you follow, there are a few Samhain traditions you may like to incorporate – such as honoring those who have passed in your family with a decorative altar or reflecting upon the positive or negative habits you cultivated this past year. What new seeds can you plant?
Love culture, history, cooking, and child-centered activities? Call Shine to learn about opportunities for fun and family in the East End of New York City. We offer classes, workshops, enrichment sessions, party entertainment, field trips, and more.