What a strange name … Eccles Cakes (especially when you consider they aren’t cakes at all). On one of our early trips to England, hubby said “I know you’re going to love these things. Don’t ask. Just try one.” Knowing me as well as he does, I fell in love with them. These hand-held puff pastry confections are flaky and full of dried fruits. Think of our fruit-filled turnover, but with dried fruits instead of fresh. Made well, they are delicious … made badly, they are cloyingly sweet.
These puff pastries were quite a success when they were first sold in a little shop in Eccles, a small town just west of Manchester, England, in 1793 by James Birch. Mr. Birch is thought to have come across the recipe for “sweet patties” in the best selling cookbook of that time, “THE EXPERIENCED ENGLISH HOUSEKEEPER“. The original recipe for “sweet patties” consisted of a mincemeat filling wrapped with puff pastry and then fried or baked. The mincemeat, which this recipe called for, was “the meat of a boiled calf’s foot, plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy”.
But neither Mr. Birch, nor The Experienced English Housekeeper invented these flat patties. It seems they date as far back as the 1500’s. Every year, the townsfolk would celebrate the construction of the “Eccles” church. As part of the church fair, these brandy and mincemeat “cakes” were served. The fairs were so popular they attracted people from all over and became quite rowdy, often resulting in bloody mayhem. But when the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, came into power in 1650, he banned the Eccles celebrations and he banned the very popular Eccles Cakes.
I just love learning about the sometimes bizarre origins of traditional foods. The next step, of course, is learning how to make them so we can enjoy them at home and not have to wait for our next trip to England. I know Eccles Cakes are available in export shops and international food stores, but the packaged ones aren’t that good …. sorry!
Traditional recipes for Eccles Cakes call for a large circle of pastry, which is then filled, sealed, turned upside down and baked … hoping that they’ve been sealed tightly so that the filling does not run out of the pastry. My recipe uses far less sugar than standard recipes and uses two pastry circles – one for the top and one for the bottom – which is then crimped and sealed (easier and less chance of seepage). I think Eccles Cakes also need some crunch and a little acid (they can be cloyingly sweet), so I’ve added the zest of one lemon and toasted walnuts. Now this is a recipe worth making! Enjoy
Pre-heat the oven to 400°. Makes 24 3″ pastries.
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1-1/4 cup dried fruits (any blend of currants, raisins, sultanas, etc.)
½ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cane syrup or honey
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
zest of one lemon
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1 box (17.5 oz. package) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg white, beaten
Demerara sugar (or table sugar)
In a small saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in all the other ingredients. After the sugar has dissolved, take it off the heat to cool and add the zest of one lemon.
Using one sheet at a time (put the other into the frig to stay cold), on a floured board, roll out the pastry to approximately 12” or ¼” thick.
With a pastry cutter, biscuit cutter, or whatever you like to use, cut out approximately 24 circles. One will be for the bottom, one for the top. Brush all the pastry circles with the beaten egg white. Place a heaping teaspoonful of filling in the center of 12 circles. Take the top circle, place it on top of the bottom, covering the filling completely and then seal or crimp the edges together.
Place the filled, sealed circles of pastry onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush the tops with more egg white. With a sharp knife, make two slits into the top for the steam to escape. Sprinkle each with Demerara sugar. Then place the baking sheet into the refrigerator to keep cold while you prepare the second sheet of puff pastry.
After you’ve finished the second sheet, you should have two trays with approximately 12 Eccles cakes on each … ready to bake. Puff pastry bakes up lighter and fluffier when its really cold, so be sure to put the finished trays into the refrigerator while you preheat the oven.
Bake them on at 400° for about 15 to 20 minutes or until they are golden brown. Move to a wire rack to cool. They’ll keep beautifully for about three to four days (but not in my house).
You can certainly make larger cakes, if you’d like, but for me, these sweet little confections are the perfect size for your afternoon tea. And I must say one of these Eccles Cakes with a cup of one of my most favorite teas, a Golden Yunnan, is so satisfying!
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References: Lancashire Eccles Cakes, Salford, Eccles Historic Society