When I first made Eccles cakes, I’m not sure I really knew where Eccles was. I certainly didn’t think I’d end up living there a few years later. The only Eccles cakes I’d encountered were at train station coffee kiosks, or at London’s St John restaurant, where they are a permanent fixture on the menu.
Don’t tell my neighbours. In Eccles, the cakes are ubiquitous. They’re such a part of the regional identity that as far back as 1838, a guide to British railways journey stated simply: ‘This place is famous for its cakes.’ My kind of place. And today, whatever the season, Eccles cakes still line the entrances to the local supermarkets.
Eccles is a small town in Greater Manchester, formerly part of the country of Lancashire. Records show that the cakes have been produced in the area since at least 1793 – although, as with most regional specialities, they probably existed for a while before they made it into writing. Most likely they were made to celebrate the feast day of St Mary in Eccles, after whom the parish church was named. The first dedicated Eccles cake bakery opened in 1796 across from St Mary’s. The Real Lancashire Eccles Cake company, which has produced the local delicacies for the past 80 years, is still located a mere five miles away.
Despite its ‘cake’ name, an Eccles cake is closer to a pastry or a bun: a flattened round, containing a mixture of currants, zest and spice, bound together with butter and brown sugar. The filling, when assembled, is the texture of rubble, like a dry mincemeat. But when cooked and slightly warm, it is soft and butterscotchy.
Lots of recipes will make Eccles cakes with shop-bought puff pastry. Now I have absolutely no problem with buying puff, but the distinctive Eccles cake pastry is a different beast and a particularly lovely one. Unlike standard puff, it is traditionally made with a combination of butter and lard. If you’re vegetarian or merely lard-averse, you can replace that with butter, but I rather think that if you’re going to go to the effort of making something like an Eccles cake, where the pastry is such an important feature, you might as well go the whole hog, so to speak.
The lard isn’t just tradition, it’s there for a reason: lard melts at a higher temperature than butter, so it produces a flakier, more tender pastry, while the butter brings flavour and richness. These fats are grated coarsely into the pastry before the whole thing is folded and chilled – like a rudimentary (and far easier) puff pastry. It is easy to handle, and when baked it is robust enough to be picked up and bitten into, but not without showering the eater with crumbs.
The cakes are finished with a coarse sugar and three holes are poked into the top: traditionally to represent the holy trinity; prosaically, to stop the cakes exploding. The shop-bought versions are clean, with no sticky sugar overspill. Ever thing is neatly contained within. Homemade versions display their filling, which splurges out through the slashes in the top and dribbles down the sides to form crinkly skirts of dark caramel. That’s all part of the charm.
Enjoying the Eccles cake in modern times doesn’t come without risk. In 2013, Lancashire Fire and Rescue were forced to issue a warning after receiving three calls in three weeks about blazes being caused by consumers reheating the cakes in their microwaves. The sugar on top had caramelised and caught alight. The Real Lancashire Eccles Cakes company now place the caution on their packaging ‘Do not microwave’.
Of course, it’s right and proper that your Eccles cake is eaten with its traditional accompaniment: a generous slice of strong, crumbly Lancashire cheese.
Makes 9 Bakes 35 mins Takes 20 minutes plus chilling time
For the pastry
– 350g plain flour
– 1 tsp fine salt
– 150g butter
– 75g lard
For the filling and topping
– 75g butter
– 150g light brown sugar
– 200g currants
– 75g candied peel
– 1 tsp mixed spice
– 1 egg white
– 4 tbsp demerara sugar
To make the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using the coarse side of a grater, grate the butter and then the lard into the mixture, stirring the fat curls in the flour intermittently so that they become coated. Add 150ml of very cold water and begin to mix the pastry using a knife. Stop as soon as the pastry comes together, since the aim is to keep pieces of fat in the mixture.
Lightly flour a surface, then roll your pastry into a rectangle half an inch thick. Fold each side into the centre to meet in the middle, then fold the whole thing again. Turn the pastry 90 degrees, roll to half an inch thick again and fold as before. Repeat this process twice more. Wrap the folded pastry tightly in clingfilm and chill it for an hour.
Heat the butter, currants, mixed peel, spices and sugar in a pan until the butter has melted. Remove from the heat, give it a good stir, then set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200°C and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper. Now roll the chilled pastry to the thickness of a pound coin.
Cut nine 12cm rounds from the pastry. Place a heaped teaspoon of the filling in the centre of the round, then bring the edges of the pastry over the mixture, joining them in the centre and pinching them together to seal. Flip the cake over and gently rock it on the work surface to smooth the join. Place on the baking tray and flatten slightly. Repeat.
Make three slashes on the top of each cake with a sharp knife, then brush with a little egg white and sprinkle with demerara sugar. Bake for 30-35 minutes until puffed and golden brown.