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 :-)

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