Sunday, March 30, 2014

Food Quest: Eccles Cakes

Do you ever get really excited to try a new recipe or cooking technique? I don't consider myself a certified "foodie", but over the years I have discovered that everything tastes better when it's home-made, and I love a good challenge or food hack. If you really think about it, cooking is a form of alchemy. (Go ahead and laugh now; I truly wanted to be an alchemist when I was a kid. Or, at the very least, an apothecary.) Think of bread-making. It's magical, isn't it? Flour, water, salt, and yeast, combined in just the right order, with certain methods, becomes a loaf of bread when heat is applied. It could also become crackers. Or you could leave out the yeast, use different ratios, and make pasta. Magic! Science!

This post is about a quest: the Quest for Eccles Cakes. In the end, it involved more hunting & gathering than magic, but it was a lot of fun and I wanted to share it with you.

The Spark

Recently, designer Kate Davies posted an Instagram picture of a pastry she was enjoying with a cup of tea. It looked delicious. And I had never, ever heard of it before. Not being a resident of the UK, I doubted I could find one already-baked anywhere close by. If I wanted to know what this pretty little pastry tasted like, I would have to make one myself.

Eccles Cakes are a small, flaky pastry filled with fruit and spices. According to folklore, they were invented in the late 1700's in the small town of Eccles (which is near Manchester). Folklore also claims that the original recipe is lost to history, guarded as a secret by the families that knew how to produce them. As a result, I found a lot of different recipes, but the basic idea is the same: puff pastry, either store-bought or homemade, filled with a blend of currants, butter, sugar, spices, and "mixed chopped peel". Clearly, the first challenge would be figuring out those ingredients in my American kitchen.


There are two out-of-the-ordinary ingredients called for in this recipe: currants and the "mixed chopped peel" mentioned above.


Currants are a small fruit, usually sold dried in a manner similar to raisins. They are related to grapes, but not the same. Information on the internet speaks to a history of controversy: In the early 1900's, production of currants in the US was banned by Congress. The Wikipedia disambiguation page lists 8 distinct plants that go by the name. According to, fresh currants and dried currants come from different plants. They aren't raisins. Or maybe they are - Merriam-Webster includes both definitions. It's all very confusing. has a handy article with a picture that shows several dried fruits side-by-side and explains the difference. I decided to trust it. In British cooking, "currants" always refers to dried, unsweetened Zante Currents. OK. I can search for those.

Now, where to find these dried fruits? My first thought was to go to a few specialty food stores (such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe's). These were a bust. The salesperson I talked to at Trader Joe's wasn't even sure what currants were, and assured me I would not find them elsewhere. To my great surprise, I finally did find them at my 'normal' local grocery store. As it turns out, Sun Maid makes them.

After all of this hullaballoo, I expected these things to taste exciting.

I have some bad news for you.

They taste almost exactly the same as raisins.

In the end this is good news. If you can't find them, I highly suggest putting it all behind you and substituting raisins in this recipe. Chop them up first, so they're the right size and easier to mix. It won't be 'authentic', but in this blogger's humble opinion, you won't be missing much. On to the citrus peels!

Mixed Chopped Peel

This ingredient is used in a lot of British dessert recipes. It refers to a blend of various citrus peels, which have been candied, chopped into bits, and randomly mixed so that a scoop contains bits of several citrus varieties. I couldn't find it anywhere (but I didn't look terribly hard), and decided to go ahead and make it. It is very easy to make, although it does take a good chunk of time. The finished product is also very impressive. I've heard of people making several varieties, possibly dipping them in chocolate, and packaging them up neatly as Christmas gifts. This would not be a bad idea.

I searched through a lot of recipes, and picked and chose from each. The method is fairly basic, but you can make it as fancy as you like: peel some citrus fruit, slice the peels into 1/4" sections, blanch them (in a pot with cold water, bring to a boil & drain) two or three times to remove some bitterness, simmer until 'done' (45 minutes to an hour or two) in a heavy sugar syrup of equal parts water & sugar, drain and allow to dry for a few hours, roll in sugar, let dry overnight. You may decide to cut out some of the pith to further reduce any bitterness, but it's not strictly necessary (especially if you're going to bake with these) and I skipped it to save time. You can check out the recipes I used here, here, and here

Quick caveat: the last step of this recipe involves letting sugary, sticky things sit out on your counter (uncovered) for 24 hours. If it's summer and you have an ant problem, or if you have limited space and curious children or pets, maybe ask a friend to make some for you :-)

The Recipe

Without further ado, here we go! Adapted from recipes here and here


For the pastry:
  • 2.5 C all-purpose flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup cold butter (2 sticks)
  • 2.5 T lemon juice (bottled is OK)
  • scant 1/2 C ice water 
For the filling:
  • 1.8 T butter 
  • 3 T orange juice
  • 1 heaping cup currants (or raisins, see above)
  • heaping 1/4 C mixed chopped peel
  • 1/2 C brown sugar
  • 1 tsp each cinnamon, ginger, allspice
  • 1 tsp lemon & orange zest, fresh or dried (I buy McCormick at my local grocer, and was all out of citrus with their rinds still on by this point)
For the topping:
  • 1 egg white, beaten
  • course sugar

Make the dough
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Make sure your butter is cold - freeze for a few minutes if necessary. Using a box grater, grate the butter into the bowl, dipping the end of the butter in flour occasionally to keep it from sticking to the grater. You may need to stir the butter gratings into the flour once or twice during this process, to keep it from clumping together. Stir the butter into the flour until combined. (This may also be done in a food processor if you have one.) Stir in the water and lemon juice and knead lightly until a soft dough forms. Let the dough rest, covered, for 30 minutes in the fridge.

To create flaky layers, roll out the dough into a large rectangle and fold in thirds and then in half. Let rest 10 minutes, then repeat 2 more times (for a total of 3 rolling & folding rounds). The dough will be much easier to roll a few minutes after it's left the fridge - but make sure the dough doesn't ever get warm enough to melt the butter. 

Make the filling
Melt the butter, and combine with remaining ingredients.

Make the pastries
Roll the dough to about 1/8th inch thickness. Cut rounds about 4.5 inches across. Fill each round with a rounded tablespoon of filling. Wet the edge of the pastry with water, pinch to seal, and flatten with your hand or a rolling pin until the filling just starts to show through the top of the dough. Place on a baking sheet, seam-side-down. Brush with the egg-white and sprinkle with sugar, then make two small slits in the top of the pastry to allow steam to escape. I cut mine a bit too wide and as a result some of the pastries got a little messy in the oven. The slits don't need to be very large. 

I got about 18 pastries out of this recipe; the original said you'd get 8. If you have extra pastry and run out of filling, chocolate chips make a great substitute for the remaining dough :-)

Bake at 425*F for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown and sticky. 

Remove to a rack to cool. Delicious if served warm or cold. 

Enjoy! These didn't last long in my house :-)

Monday, March 24, 2014

The best kind of mail sheep-y mail. 

My post on the making of Eccles Cakes is taking longer to put together than I thought, so in the meantime, I thought I'd tell you about the exciting, fiber-related packages that have been gracing my doorstep as of late.

Louet Drop-Spindle Sampler

First up is this lovely drop-spindle sampler set from Louet North America, c/o Craftsy, which showed up today! I've been eyeing a couple of spinning classes on Craftsy for a while now, and snapped them up during Crafty's Spring sale (50% off most everything). The basic drop-spindling class has this nice sampler pack associated with it.

It's quite a deal, too - the whole kit costs as much as the spindle alone would cost, full-price. That means the fiber is basically free, wheeee!

Inside the kit there is:

2 oz Medium Coopworth - very, very fluffy. I cannot emphasize enough how fluffy this is.

2 oz Jacob Grey wool top - course and sturdy, with a lot of character

2oz Blue-Faced Leicester - lustrous and strong, not as soft as I expected, but I think it will be very interesting to spin. It's so smooth it almost doesn't feel like wool.

A bottom-whorl spindle, with a lovely sheep design on the bottom of the whorl.

Pictured here next to my DIY drop spindle - they are very similar in weight, so I'm interested to see if they behave differently. My spindle is convertible and I've mostly used it in the top-whorl position, so that will be a big difference for sure.

Finally, a little sampler pack of Soak wash:

I love Soak. I bought a big bottle of the Ravelry scent a long time ago and it still hasn't run out. This will be nice to mix things up for a few washes.

Unfortunately, I already have a long-term spinning project underway, so I'm trying to be good and not start spinning this all up right away...we'll see how long I can hold out! I've been able to spin pretty thin singles lately, so I figure I can get a lot out of each 2oz portion if I'm careful. I'm thinking maybe a tri-color Shetland lace shawl, like this one or this one.


Speaking of long-term projects...this arrived in my mailbox last week:

4 250-yard skeins of worsted-weight BFL from Paradise Fibers. They are not joking about their quality service - this literally arrived 3 days after I ordered it, and with only $5 shipping. The checkout process was a snap. Plus, I had a $10 coupon because my father-in-law entered a contest for me. (If you're reading this, thanks again!) I had never shopped with PF before, but I'd highly recommend them now. 

The story behind this purchase is that this year, I intend to dye enough yarn to actually make a garment. All of my dyeing experiments have been successful so far, I love the look of sweaters made with gorgeous hand-dyes, and I can't bear to think of the cost of buying them. So, naturally, I should just make some myself. 

The plan is to make The Yarniad's Mielie Vest. This would be a functional, versatile piece for me, and would probably mean the end of my "safari vest" (an old, stained, fake down vest from Walmart that I wear continually when it's cold out). A vest also requires less yarn than a full sweater, making the dyeing process easier. I'm not sure what color I'm going to do yet. I'd like to produce a subtle variegation, rather than something harsh with a lot of contrast. The natural BFL is a little more yellow than I thought it would be, which inclines me to go towards an autumnal palate. 

I'll blog about the entire process so you can follow along. I've not been able to find much information on dyeing sweater-quantities of yarn in your kitchen - everyone who writes tutorials seems to be OK with making single one-off skeins. But I'd like to make something useful, and get a taste (however small) of what it would be like to have a dyeing business, and repeatable colorways, and dye lots, and all of that. Stay tuned!


Most excitedly, a lovely little fluffy package arrived all the way from the UK a few days ago:

Meet Cumulus, a new yarn base from Fyberspates. I will share full details towards the end of the month, but I was selected to be a yarn tester and am currently test-driving this yarn on a secret project. 

The yarn is similar in construction to Rowan's KidSilk Haze, or KnitPicks' Aloft, with a major difference: there is no mohair involved. A sturdy core of shining silk is surrounded by lighter-than-air puffs of baby alpaca. It's slightly heavier than the comparable brands, making for slightly more substantial knitting. It is still very much like knitting with clouds, however. Fortunately, I don't have any fiber-related allergies, but I know a lot of knitters have problems with mohair. This yarn is for you! 

Cumulus is available now, but stay tuned for the official 'release party' - it's going to be a lot of fun and I can't wait to show you what I'm working on.

The End

Like all good things, eventually the yarn-mail had to stop and I do believe it'll be over for a while now. It's very rare that anything in my mailbox is actually for me, anyway (most of it is junk mail), so this has been a very exciting couple of weeks indeed. Be back soon to fill you in on the Eccles Cakes :-)


Sunday, March 16, 2014

A week without knitting

(well, mostly without knitting - let's not get crazy now)

Last week's marathon knitting was not sustainable. I know my limits, and it's fun to test them sometimes, but I also know when to stop. So this week, I knit a few rows on my sock-in-progress each day,

I swear they're getting longer...

but otherwise cast the knitting aside for some other pursuits.

Instead, I:

worked on my jean quilt

The quilt requires 80 of these 8"x8" squares. I'm stacking groups of 8 and binder-clipping them to keep track; so far I have 6 stacks down and only 4 to go. The black fabric in the first picture is for the backing. It's polar fleece from Joann's Fabric, and my plan is to hand-tie the quilt-top to the backing using white thread once it's assembled. Since the backing is fleece and the denim top is already heaving, I'm skipping batting. The edging/binding is under debate - I'm a bit concerned that if I went a full quilt-binding route, my little sewing machine wouldn't be able to handle stitching through all of the layers. My other thought was to sew the edges wrong-side-together and turn inside out, and then do a wide (mostly decorative) running stitch around the border with the same thread used for tying.

organized my jewelry

No before picture, but just imagine all of that strewn on a dresser and you'll get the idea. Eventually I'd like to make something pretty to hang my necklaces and earrings on. For now, I figured repurposing this unused filing system would do the trick. 

bought flowers, baked, and baked 

Spring is coming, but it can't get here soon enough! I found some freesia at the grocery store, and I just love how it fills up the house with its scent.

The little pastries are Eccles Cakes. I got the idea from Kate Davies, who recently Instagrammed a picture of an authentic one. It is such a very British desert, and was quite an adventure to prepare! I want to document my experience with the recipe, so I'll try to get another post in this week with the full details. In short, they were quite tasty and I would definitely make them again (but it's not worth your time to hunt for currants if you can't find any locally).

The cake is my absolute favorite chocolate cake, which happens to be flourless and thus gluten-free. It is dead simple to make, rich, and oh-so decadent. If you want to make some, I highly suggest inviting some friends over to share. It is excellent on its own and also pairs quite nicely with whipped cream & berries. yum!

performed more Wilton's dyeing experiments, aimed towards finally making a Color Affection

Before - dyeing the blue & tan to coordinate with the yellow
The blue and tan yarns are both Vally Yarns Charlemont, a Merino-Silk-Nylon blend. The tan took the dye wonderfully, but the blue stayed very close to its original color. I may find something else to dye to get the burgandy-purple color I was aiming'll be a while before I start knitting this project, so I have time.

The yellow yarn was my first Wilton's experiment, stashed here.

and spun up an ounce or so of fiber on my drop spindle. 

I'm getting faster and more consistent, but it would help if I didn't spin for a week and put it away for a month. I have too many hobbies. In related news, Craftsy just had a flash sale and I scooped up two spinning classes - From Fluff to Stuff (basic spindling) and Spinning Dyed Fibers. I'm very excited and will let you know how they go once I get a chance to dig in.

All in all, it was a very productive week! This week, it'll be back to knitting-as-usual :-)


Friday, March 7, 2014

Tutorial: Pattern Marking - Tracking Repeats

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen that for the past few days I've had whole-day training classes at work, and I've been knitting away the whole time.

I love getting to knit during classes and other events. It feels so productive. I've always had a hard time paying attention to verbal presentations - I'm very visual and would usually rather read a book to get information. Knitting takes the edge off and helps me focus on what is being said. (It also happens to be excellent insurance against falling asleep in the afternoons!)

Now, my current WIP is a fairly simple sweater - reverse stockinette with two easy cables down the middle. But it does have some shaping going on pretty constantly all throughout the front & back pieces. How do you keep track of that, while still devoting your utmost attention to whatever else is going on? A while back I figured out a really simple, customizable method for doing this, which requires no special tools and can even handle multiple repeats (such as armhole shaping & neckline; anytime when the pattern says "at the same time..."). This method could be used any time that your attention is at risk (knit night) or otherwise allocated (class or meetings). It is very unobtrusive - no one will even know you are doing it.

Materials Required

  • Pattern
  • Pen & paper (can be done on your pattern, or on a separate piece)
  • Enough light to see
Easy peasy, no stitch counters required!


I'll run through a simple and a complex example below, but at a high level, the method is this:
  1. Read an entire pattern section. If it contains any repeats, you can use this method. Be sure to read it fully before beginning.
  2. Let A be the number of rows contained in the repeated section.
  3. Let B be the number of times you have to repeat.
  4. Draw a grid that has A columns and B rows. Each square represents a row of knitting.
  5. Mark the grids where you have to do something.
  6. Knit! Every time you finish a row, cross it off on the grid. When you reach a marked grid, execute the pattern for that grid and cross it off. 
It sounds complicated to lay it out like that, but once you see a few examples, it is really very simple. Here we go!

Example 1: Sleeve shaping

Let's pretend we're knitting a sleeve from the cuff up, in stockinette. We might have shaping rows defined like this:

        Increase row: k1, M1R, k to 2 st before EOR marker, M1L, k1. 2 st increased.
        Knit 9 rows even.

        Repeat the last 10 rows 5 more times. 

Here, A = 10. Each repeat contains 1 increase row and 9 even rows. 

B = 6. Note: some patterns will say "Repeat 5 times, for a total of 6", or some may just say "repeat 5 times". If the latter, be sure to add 1 - the pattern assumes that you have knit the pattern row and even rows through, once, before encountering the "repeat x times" instruction. Here, we want to capture the total number of times we need to work the patterned row. 

So here is our 10x6 grid:

Now we need to mark the pattern rows. We're increasing, so I like to write a little 'i' patterned rows.

All set! Now, we work the first increase row, cross it off, and continue along until the whole grid is crossed out. When we encounter a plain square we know to just keep knitting in pattern. When we get to a row with an 'i', we work the increase row and continue.

Example 2: Multiple repeats at once!

Here, for a more complicated example, lets pretend we're knitting a modified version of my sweater-in-progress, where things happen AT THE SAME TIME. (In the actual pattern they've worked out the numbers so this doesn't happen.) We're making a sort of bat-wing/dolman/cocoon shape, and our sweater back might have instructions like the following:

        Increase Row C: (WS) Slip 1, work in pattern to1 stitch before marker1, kfb, work in pattern to
        marker2, kfb, work in pattern to end. 2 st increased.
        Work 9 rows even in pattern. 

        Repeat the last 10 rows 5 times.
        At the same time, work Increase Row D below every 6th row 8 times.
        Increase Row D: (WS) Slip 1, kfb, work in pattern to last 2 stitches, kfb, k1. 2 st increased.

Visually, we're basically doing this:

On C rows we increase at the center, and on D rows we increase at the edges. The trick is that these increase rows repeat independently from each other. This often happens in cardigan patterns when you have to shape the armscye at the same time as the neckline. 

We'll start by making a grid for the longest repeat (increase row C). For this example, A is 10 and B is 5. We'll draw a 10x5 grid and mark each grid in the first column with "iC".

Next, we'll count off every 6th row and mark those for increase row D.

And look at that, now we have this whole confusing section mapped out in a simple, visual way. We can knit merrily along, cross things off as we go, and execute the increase rows as we come to them.

It's not terribly exciting, but I find this method incredibly useful. When I want to take a project with me somewhere, I work through a page or two (depending on how verbose the instructions are) and grid out all of the repeated sections so they're ready when I come to them.

I like to do this right on my pattern - I'm already marking my size, and any modifications, so these grids just add to the cacaphony already going on. If you'd prefer to keep your patterns clean, you could certainly draw grids on sticky notes or even on index cards.

I hope you find this method helpful! If you have other tricks for keeping track of complicated patterns, I'd love to hear about them.

By the way, the sweater I'm knitting is Jules by Julie Hoover for Brooklyn Tweed. Raveled here