The town of Eccles sits in an area that was once Lancashire; although it is now technically in Greater Manchester, spiritually it remains Lancastrian. Records show that the eponymous cakes have been sold commercially on Church Street in Eccles since at least 1793, although there are recipes in cookbooks which predate this for cakes whose similarities to the Eccles cake make them a likely precursor. But either way, this is a pastry with serious heritage. It isn’t the only Lancastrian cake with age on its side though: Chorley cakes, another sweet treat hailing from Lancashire, is similar to the Eccles cake, but is thinner than its Eccles brethren, less sweet, and is made of a shorter, less-flaky pastry.
An Eccles cake is a filled pastry – less of a cake and more of a pie, really. The Eccles cake uses a flaky pastry, a pastry layered with butter or fat, but one which is quicker and simpler to make than ‘proper’ puff pastry. The filling is currant-heavy, but cooked with a little butter, some brown sugar and some candied peel. It tastes suitably old-fashioned, with its medieval collection of spices and dried fruits, and its pastry should be rich and crisp and scatter your plate and lap with flaky crumbs.
Although many modern recipes eschew lard, it is traditional, and I rather think 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 traditional. But it’s not just about tradition: lard melts at a higher temperature than butter, so produces a flakier, more tender pastry. But if you’d rather keep the cakes vegetarian, replace the 50g of lard with an extra 50g of butter.
Once assembled, the tops of the cakes are slashed three times – to represent the Holy Trinity, according to Eccles cake aficionado, chef Fergus Henderson – and then brushed with egg white and sprinkled with coarse sugar.
Eat these warm with a generous slice of Lancashire cheese on the side.
Makes: 12 eccles cakes
Takes: plus chilling time
For the pastry
250g plain flour
1 teaspoon fine salt
50g lard (or replace with an extra 50g of butter if you’d like to keep the cakes vegetarian)
For the filling
120g Light brown sugar
50g candied peel
1 teaspoon mixed spice
For the topping
1 egg white
4 tablespoons demerara sugar
- To make the pastry, place the plain flour and salt into a large bowl and stir together. Using the coarse side of a grater, grate the butter and then the lard if using into the mixture. Turn the butter as you do this, dipping it into the flour occasionally to make it easier to grate. Toss the butter and lard curls in the flour until they are coated. Add a tablespoon of cold water and begin to mix the pastry using a knife: stop as soon as the pastry comes together, as the aim is to keep chunks of butter in the mixture. If the pastry is struggling to bind, add another tablespoon of water.
- Lightly flour a work surface, then roll your pastry out into a rectangle about half an inch thick. Fold each side into the centre so they meet in the middle, then fold the whole thing again. Turn the pastry 90 degrees, roll until half an inch thick, then repeat the folds. Repeat the 90-degree turn and fold two more times. Then wrap the folded pastry tightly in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least an hour.
- Meanwhile, make the filling. Place the butter, currants, mixed peel, spices and sugar in a small pan until the butter has melted, then remove from the heat, give it a good stir, and then set to one side to cool completely.
- When you’re ready to assemble the cakes, line two baking tays with greaseproof paper and preheat the oven to 200°C. Roll the pastry on a lightly floured surface until it is about the thickness of a pound coin.
- Cut rounds from the pastry about 3.5 inches in diameter. Place a heaped teaspoon of the fruit mixture in the centre of the round, then bring the edges of the pastry together in the centre, pinching them together to seal. Flip the cake over, and then gently rock the cake on your work surface to smooth the join. Place on the baking tray and flatten slightly. Repeat until you have twelve cakes across two baking trays.
- Slash the top of each cake three times with a sharp knife, then brush the tops with a little egg white and sprinkle with demerara sugar. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the cakes are puffed and golden brown.