ECCLES CAKES

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.  Made well, they are delicious.  Made badly, they are cloyingly sweet and sticky.

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”.

Artist Joseph Parry, Manchester Art Gallery

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

ECCLES CAKES
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
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Raisins, Sultanas or Currants?

Have you ever read a British recipe only to see “sultanas” or “currants” as an ingredient?  And have you ever then put that recipe down because who has “sultanas” or “currants” in the cupboard?  Probably no one in the states.  But do you know what they are and what you can use?

I’m pretty sure we all know what raisins are?  Dried seedless grapes. The majority of our grapes are grown in California, originally from the ‘Sultanina’ grape (possibly named because of its origination in the town Soultanieh in the middle East).

In 1870 William Thompson imported this variety of grape to California for his vineyards.  But from the devastating drought of 1873 William was left with nothing but shriveled up grapes on his vines.  Making ‘lemonade out of lemons’ Thompson sold the dried up grapes as a “Peruvian Delicacy” and low and behold the California raisin industry was born!  The Sultanina grape is now known as the Thompson grape and is the most widely planted grape in the industry.

Dried grapes (or raisins) have been around for thousands of years though.  Whether it’s grapes, or plums, figs or apricots, leaving vegetables and fruits out to dry in the sun is one of the oldest methods of preserving food.  More than 2,000 years B.C. wall paintings found throughout the Mediterranean showed us that dried fruits were a major part of the diet.  In medieval times, dried fruits were the most common form of sweetener, far more popular (and more expensive) than honey. In Roman times, two bags of dried fruits could buy a slave.

 So now that we’ve established what a raisin is, what is a sultana? Sultanas are actually nothing more than ‘raisins’, but made from the lighter green Thompson grapes. When dried, they are golden in color and tend to be a bit bigger and sweeter than our ordinary raisins.  Sultanas are easy to find in the supermarket under the name “golden raisins”.  In baking you can use golden raisins anytime sultanas are called for in a recipe.

Currants, on the other hand, are a completely different fruit.  Much smaller in size and quite tart, whether red or black, currants are berries grown on shrubs or bushes and not grown on vines. Most often, currants are associated with only being available in Great Britain.  Sun Maid sells a product called Zante Currants, which is not a currant at all but a grape, originally from Greece, and should not be confused with the currants of Great Britain.

The currants used in many British recipes are, for the most part, not available in the U.S. Commercial cultivation of these currants was banned from 1911 until 2003 because of concerns the plants could harbor a disease that had the potential to devastate American timber.  Disease-resistant varieties were developed and now the ban has been lifted.  For this reason, many Americans confuse Zante raisins with currants.  Although I’ve never tried growing currants, I’m told they grow easily in your own backyard.  So until I do, I’m probably going to use Sun Maid’s Zante Currants (raisins) in place of British currants in my baking.

Whether in baking or in savory foods, be sure to use plenty of raisins, sultanas or currants in your cooking … or just keep them around as a handy snack.  A low-fat food, full of antioxidants and polyphenolic phytonutrients, dried fruits act as an anti-inflammatory and can help protect the body against free radicals.  Dried fruits also contain iron, B vitamins, potassium and magnesium, which helps build red blood cells and healthy bones.  Red and black currants, in particular, have four times more vitamin C than oranges and twice the antioxidants of blueberries.   Great for digestion because they contain lots of fiber, these sweet, delicious dried fruits really are nature’s candy.

So the next time you’re about to make Spotted Dick, a Christmas Pudding or Bara Brith, don’t be afraid to reach for the ‘raisins’.

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References:  Raisin Grape Varieties,  Isons Nurseries, Sun Maid, Cornell University, Wise Geek

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