Does bread have a soul? They think so in Schwabia, south Germany, where they bake traditional spelt sourdough ‘souls’ bread rolls - Schwäbische Seelen.
What is Seelen, the souls bread?
Schwäbische Seelen, ‘souls’ from Swabia in southern Germany, are long and thin bread rolls or batons, traditionally made from spelt flour or a mix of spelt and white, leavened on a sourdough starter. The name is the most curious, but not the most wonderful thing about them.
It’s not crystal clear why they are called souls. Most likely the name is derived from the Christian feast of All Souls Day (or All Saints Day in some regions). In a parallel to the Mexican Day of the Dead, bread was baked as an offering for the ‘poor souls’, those suffering in the purgatory.
Another story links the souls to the medieval custom of giving a loaf of bread to every beggar (‘poor soul’) in the locality, to ward off the plague. Thrifty Swabians made sure the loaves were as small as possible!
What is German ‘souls’ bread like?
The bread is quite gorgeous with thin crust and airy, chewy crumb. It disappears in a jiffy, loaded with ham or cheese, or just generously buttered. After a day or two it can be easily refreshed by spraying it with water and passing it through a hot oven.
There are many variations of the souls as they currently seem to be bang on trend. Spelt sourdough is the classic, but you can also make souls on white bread flour, mixed white and spelt, or rye.
No sourdough starter – no problem: seven grams fresh or a teaspoon of instant yeast instead of sourdough starter will do the trick.
How to make souls bread?
The recipe that caught my eye comes from Breadtopia but I also glanced at some German websites to cross-reference it ethnically.
The Seelen are surprisingly easy to make – or perhaps not so surprising considering they are full-works artisan. In fact the result of mixing the dough in your kitchen mixer would not merit the chore of washing up.
First things first though: the starter dough or levain should ferment overnight, with the dough mixed in the morning.
There is no need to refresh the sourdough starter before mixing the levain. As long as you have a recently viable sour sitting in the fridge, add spelt flour and water to it and stick it in your airing cupboard or somewhere similarly warm.
The next morning the main dough comes together – combined with a spatula, a spoon or your hands into a very rough lump.
Next, the only hardship is to stay at home on hand for half-hourly stretch-and-fold exercise (though I know people who run errands with the trusty Tupperware tub on passenger seat, if they have to pop out). With every stretch, it should become smoother and more elastic before, finally, it’s ready for an overnight rest in the fridge.
The next day all you need is a sturdy baking surface, a hot oven, some water and readiness to play mudcakes. That’s precisely how the souls breads are shaped: like making mud castles with grubby paws. The less shapely, the tastier they will actually be – or maybe it’s just me making excuses for my lack of sculptural skills.
They are divine freshly baked, with a pat of butter melting on roughly torn crumb but, as mentioned before, they can be readily freshened up in a hot oven.
The recipe below makes only four batons, far too little if it’s to be your weekly bread bake, so simply scale it up to the required multiplication of delicious, crusty-chewy, one-is-never-enough rolls.
More sourdough bread roll recipes
My seeded sourdough batons are a little bigger, and more regimented than the rustic souls – very worth your attention though.
And I am inordinately proud of the Golden Gate bread rolls, made with San Francisco-style dough (you’d never guess that would you?). Especially of the name that I came up with for them.
Dimpled and malted, these are extremely delightful French bread rolls.
More German bread recipes
Who doesn’t like pretzels? And they’re all the better for being homemade.
German seeded rye sourdough loaf is a type of blonde pumpernickel and totally delicious.
Partybrot is a checker board of white and brown bread rolls, to pull apart and share.