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What's For Pud? Eccles Cakes

April 23, 2006

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On the weekends I have a routine, with a friend: we like to visit the neighborhood community market and wander the produce stands and bakery tables, get warm chocolate croissants and coffee, and sprawl out to enjoy a weekend breakfast in the sun. The chocolate croissant, you understand, being the cornerstone of the routine.

But last time I was looking over a local baker's spread, and a small round pastry caught my eye. It was neatly stacked on its fellows, each crimped, golden, and speckled with grains of sugar. What's that? I asked the amiable proprietor. Even from my side of the table they looked heavy and firm, like little pats of butter. English Eccles cakes! he said, in a rolling British accent. This sounded vaguely familiar, like something I'd read in a book.

The stack of yellow cakes stood up stolidly from the other goods around it - the delicate French croissants, the decidedly oversized American muffins, the gaudy Danishes and loaves of wheat bread. I'll take one! I said.

When I bit into it I found a firm yet yielding pastry, with tender, buttery layers and a hollow in the center oozing with spiced raisins and their treacly syrup. This was a wholly satisfying little cake - a modest, unassuming exterior, but inside replete with butter, a tender middle, and spicy, mincemeat-like filling. In fact, it was delicious - a finger-licking breakfast with only a buttery paper bag left to show for it.

I wanted to try these things myself. I looked them up and found out that Eccles cakes have been a regional specialty in England since the late 1700s. They're similar to Banbury cakes - another tantalizing, seemingly legendary delicacy from my childhood reading. They were initially sold by a shopkeeper in the small town of Eccles. They became quite the rage, popularized by the local church fairs, and eventually got themselves exported all over the known world.

But the secret of the recipe was kept close and aspiring copycats had to guess at it. One early recipe included "the meat of a boiled calf’s foot (gelatine), plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy." Now, that sounds good. Doesn't it sound good?

So I read a few more recipes, searched out the elusive currant, steeled myself to try puff pastry for the first time, discovered it's not that hard, and made four dozen Eccles cakes for Easter brunch. I saved a couple; they're still holding in the fridge, on hand for the warrior martyr St. George's feast Day - which happens to also be the rather undercelebrated national holiday of England. To remedy the perennial oversight, Sam of Becks & Posh is holding a What's For Pud? event to showcase a stream of uniquely British puddings - that's dessert, to us Americans - commemorating the day of the saint who slew a dragon.

And just for those of us who really have no organic connection to St. George or this particular patronage, I would like to note, helpfully, that St. George is the official patron of a veritable host of nations: Italy, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, and my own ancestral homeland, Slovenia. (Not to mention sheep, shepherds, saddlers, soldiers, and many, many other things.)

But of course jolly England is the focus here, along with what is, apart from milky tea, its most splendid culinary symbol: the pudding. I've always found pudding to be vastly preferable to dessert; dessert in my mind leaving the way open to some insipid piece of machine-made cake from a cart, or an anemic brownie with an obligatory scoop of melting ice cream. Dessert is just sweet. Pudding is substantial - real fruitcake or custard or a trifle layered with just about any good thing you can think of. Or hefty little pastries, like these - flaky and toothsome with a tipsy filling of citrus and currants. You could eat a couple for a meal and not regret it. They're all that's good about butter and sugar and the fruit of the vine. There's a reason those English put a stamp on their world - they got their pudding straight, and here's to it!

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Eccles Cakes
Makes about 50 smallish cakes

Filling
6 tablespoons of butter
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
0.5 teaspoon of cloves
peel from 2 lemons
peel from 2 oranges
2 cups currants
0.5 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons of brandy
4 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Melt butter in a small saucepan.
2. Add spices and peel and fry until they are fragrant in the butter.
3. Add fruit, brandy, and juice.
4. Simmer for ten or fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Let cool, then put in the fridge overnight to let the flavors really meld.

Puff Pastry
4 sticks of butter (1 lb)
4 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
Between 1 and 1.5 cups of ice cold water

1. Take three of the sticks of butter and slice them in half lengthwise and then again widthwise.
2. Arrange them into a rectangle on a large piece of wax paper. Put another piece of wax paper on top and roll them the butter out into a 9x12 rectangle between the sheets of waxed paper. (This is the most maddening part - it gets easier from here - I promise.) Chill for at least four hours.
3. Put the four cups of flour into a food processor. Cut up the remaining stick of butter and add it, bit by bit, to the flour and pulse into dusty crumbs.
4. Dump the butter-flour crumbs into a big bowl and add ice water gradually, stirring, just until the dough comes together.
5. Knead for a couple minutes until smooth.
6. Wrap and refrigerate four hours or overnight.
7. Roll the dough out into a 1/4 inch thick rectangle and place the butter rectangle on top.
8. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter and roll out to its previous size.
9. Fold the sides of the dough up to the midle, like folding a piece of paper into thirds, then fold it again in half - like closing a book. You're working the butter into the dough in finer and finer layers; the butter if it stays cold will puff the pastry up in delicious and spectacular ways when you're finished. Wrap this parcel well and put back in the fridge for at least an hour or two.
10. Take the dough out and roll the parcel out into the rectangle again, then repeat the folding process. This is working the butter into the pastry in finer and finer layers.
10. Continue this process - rolling out, then folding. These are called turns. Do at least four turns - six or more is even better. It's very simple: the longer you let the dough rest and chill between turns, and the more turns you do, the lighter and flakier your pastry will be. I did five turns over the course of about 8 hours, and mine was fine - but if I was doing some other kind of pastry I would definitely let it sit overnight at least once.

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Assembly
1 egg, beaten
coarse sugar

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Take a third of the the puff pastry dough from the fridge. It should be very cold and firm, but not hard. Roll it out to a thickness of about 1/8 inch.
3. Cut small circles - I used a biscuit cutter that gave me four-inch circles. You could do larger, but I wanted a lot of individual pastries.
4. Put a small dollop of filling in the center.
5. Fold in half, like a potsticker dumpling, and seal the edges with your fingers.
6. Now bring the two pointy edges up and fold them in the center, on the curved seam.
7. Flatten out the little pouch with your fingers, and roll it into a small circle - just thin enough that the filling shows through the dough a little. Try not to let it leak out, though. Which is hard.
8. Put two or three shallow slashes in the top of the finished round cake.
9a. Brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle with sugar.
9b. Note: I think that my pastry dough was pretty warm by this point, from all the handling and rolling. I didn't try this at the time, but in the future I think I would put the finished, unbaked pans of cakes in the fridge or freezer to let them chill again - maybe for an hour. I think this might make a higher, lighter pastry. Somebody try it out and let me know!
10. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and puffy. Try not to eat one immediately - the hot raisin filling will scorch your mouth - believe me, I know. These are amazingly good even a few days later.

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Posted by Faith at 23 April 2006

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Comments

wow! I am totally speechless - that is one totally amazing job on the Eccles cakes. Brilliant!

Posted by: sam at April 23, 2006 03:24 AM

Wow. I passed on "What's for Pud?" just because I couldn'r think of any English dessert worth making. But you have really sold this one! Looks great.

Posted by: Susan in Italy at April 23, 2006 09:01 AM

Well done! I've never tried eccles cakes but now I must must must have some. Must! Your recipe has been clipped and is going in my "must-try" folder.

Merci!

Posted by: Ivonne at April 23, 2006 04:40 PM

By the way, your blog is gorgeous!

Posted by: Ivonne at April 23, 2006 04:40 PM

Wow! They're the best looking eccles cakes I've ever seen... oh how I want some!!

Posted by: bron at April 23, 2006 06:55 PM

I never heard of these when I lived in England, and now I'm sorry to have missed out. They sound and look amazing (like everything on your site).

Glad to have found you.

Posted by: littlebouffe [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 23, 2006 10:19 PM

Your eccles cakes look great, and I am so pleased to see them being made and loved in America. In England there is a danger of them becoming extinct. When I first read that I rushed out to buy some, but your post has encouraged me to head kitchenwards.

Posted by: Anna at April 24, 2006 03:00 AM

I love Eccles cakes but have never considered making them before. You recipe is now printed and awaiting a spare moment kitchen moment...

Posted by: Andrew at April 26, 2006 07:54 PM

Amazing!! My family owns a bakery and we make Eccles cakes and I'm going to try your recipe and compare it to my families old recipe from Ireland. Thanks.
Mel

Posted by: mel at November 28, 2006 12:04 PM

Your Eccles Cakes are wonderful.
I've been looking everywhere for a good recipe for these. Asked on an English blog and couldn't get a good recipe for the life of me.
Your puff pastry is gorgeous too. I haven't made it since high school,we had an old English cookery teacher who forgot she was in Australia and kept giving us English recipes to make. Hence my first experience of Eccles cakes. I loved them.

I'll definitely try them.

Posted by: cakebaker_cakemaker at December 28, 2006 01:50 AM

That's wonderful, cakebaker! Thanks for commenting - do let me know how they turn out!

Posted by: faith at December 29, 2006 01:04 PM

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