The other day, I decided to break one of my baking ducks and have a go at Eccles cakes. The combination of currants wrapped in sugar-frosted puff pastry is one of those simple delights that tastes great and offers textural contrast between the sticky fruit filling, the pastry flakes and the granular sugar glaze.
For traditional farmhouse baking, it’s always best to use an old cookery book. As my cookery books are currently buried in the shed – don’t ask – I found a recipe online, then consulted with my mother, whose copy of Good Housekeeping (copyright 1941) is not buried in a shed. The online recipe was pretty close to the traditional one, which satisfied my need for authenticity. Apparently, Eccles cakes were first sold commercially from a shop in Eccles owned by James Birch, around 1796. In those days, the dough would have been yeast-raised, and the filling contained apples, orange, egg yolk, dried fruit and probably brandy or rum, as they were so popular they were exported and would need a preservative. 19th century recipes are closer to the ones we have today; with such elasticity of ingredients, there is no such thing as an original recipe, which means you can play a bit with the contents and still come up with something close to what people were tucking into over 200 years ago.
The only other issue was size; the online recipe stipulated 2 ½ ” pastry rounds, and the smallest thing I had was a beer glass at 3 ½ ” – the size given in Good Housekeeping. Even this turned out to be hopelessly small for the filling and sealing operation – I am not good with fiddly things. The first batch, whilst it cooked OK and tasted fine, had open-bottomed cakes because I couldn’t seal them properly.
The second attempt was much more successful. To compensate for my poor fiddling skills, I made them much larger – the pastry rounds are about 6-7” in diameter, which gives space for a dessertspoon of filling and a good margin of pastry for folding and sealing. The bigger size makes them good for sharing - or over-indulgence!
Pre-heat oven to 225C, Gas Mark 7.
Ingredients: about 1lb of puff pastry for the cases, plus egg wash for sealing and glazing, and sugar for frosting. Filling: 7oz mixed dried fruit and candied peel OR 5oz currants & 2oz chopped candied peel; 3oz melted butter; 4oz soft brown sugar; cinnamon & nutmeg; rind and juice of 1 orange, OR grated zest of 1 lemon.
Filling: Melt the butter and combine with all other ingredients in a bowl.
Assembly: On a floured board, roll out the pastry and cut into large rounds. Put a dessertspoon of filling into the centre of one half. Paint the edges and the other half with egg wash and fold over the filling, sealing the edges firmly, so it looks like a Cornish pasty. Sit the pastry parcel with the filling pouch at the bottom and the sealed edges upwards, and bring the corners together at the top, pinching them firmly into place. Turn the parcel over so the seam is on the bottom, and use the rolling pin to flatten the Eccles cake to about ¼ ” thickness. Place on a large baking tray covered with baking parchment.
Baking: Brush the tops with egg wash and scatter generously with sugar. Make three slashes across the top of each cake with a sharp knife. Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack, but eat them while they’re still warm!
If you make your own mincemeat for Christmastime, using this as a filling would also yield good results.