I will stress the St. John in our Eccles cake, as I am sure Eccles cake bakers in Eccles will not recognize them as an Eccles cake they know.
Oddly enough, for a restaurant with a certain carnivorous reputation, we serve a vegetarian Eccles cake, omitting to use the traditional lard in the pastry; instead we use puff pastry, so apologies to Eccles, but this recipe’s results are delicious and particularly fine when consumed with Lancashire cheese, a fresh, sharp, and crumbly cheese.
Eccles cakes take their name from the town of Eccles. It is a small flaky cake containing currents, but one of those dishes that much debate arises from, almost to the same extent as the discussion of what should go into a proper cassoulet. But the rigor of the Eccles cake discussion is that there are far fewer elements to disagree on, hence I stress Lancashire cheese, whose fresh, sharp qualities are the perfect foil for the rich currant filling.
With that last sentence banging about in my noggin, I suppose I should come clean right now: these Eccles cakes are missing currants. Had actual thought gone into things I suppose ordering some dried currants might have been a wise move. Not me though, my life is a whirling dervish of random encounters and half-baked ideas. So that’s why I grabbed two possible alternatives when all of my local markets let me down.
There are two different fruits called currants. First is the dried zante grape which is a lot like a raisin and is commonly used in baked goods. Most people think of currants as a fresh tiny berry that resembles a gooseberry. To cover my bases I grabbed a box of golden raisins and a bag of frozen goji berries.
When Chef David Holtzman and crew started talking about making the cakes, I helpfully pointed out that I had bought two boxes of pre-made puff pastry dough. The chef was having none of that nonsense and proudly declared that we’d be making puff pastry by hand, dammit.
And so he did. It was a wonderful master class of proper baking techniques: the melding of cold butter and flour into hundreds of layers. In this picture you can see a layer of butter exposed under the cracking, moistened flour. Making puff pastry by hand is not an easy task because you have to keep the butter at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit or else it will start melting, ensuring that you never get the desired “puff” aspect.
That’s why Chef David took his time and properly rested the pastry in the fridge when he started to notice the dough warming up. Letting the dough sit also allows the gluten in the flour to strengthen its bonds, which helps the layering remain intact during the folding and rolling periods.
When it came to making the filling, I explained to everyone my dilemma with the lack of proper currants. Quickly they ruled the Goji berries out, as apparently the flavor of the Goji isn’t exactly what I was looking for. That left the golden raisins to take center stage, and did they ever shine. In a small pot I melted a few tablespoons of butter to which I added some dark brown sugar, pinches of ground allspice and nutmeg, and a little over a cup and a half of sun-kissed golden raisins. Everything was then tossed until even and set aside to cool off.
It’s at this point that I totally spaced on taking pictures, so I’ll have to verbally paint you a picture or two. I do apologize but we were trying to cook seven different things all at the same time. It’s a terrible excuse, but the truth is terrible sometimes.
Thankfully I do have this image depicting the starting of the Eccles cake assembly. Here you can see Chef David cutting out little rounds of pastry dough which we then filled with dollops of the raisin melange. Pinching the edges of each pre-baked cake ensured that the insides stayed on the inside of each pastry instead of free-flowing all over the baking sheet onto its brethren. Next was a quick egg wash and sprinkling of caster sugar before we slashed the top of each cake three times. Apparently Eccles cakes must have only three slashes. Five is right out.
The cakes went into a medium hot oven for about 16 or so minutes, and they came out looking like this. Delightfully tender, buttery circles housing a rich, velvety spiced raisin filling. The pastry in particular was ethereal and flaky, the use of butter instead of lard or shortening making for a splendid mouth-feel and lightly buttered fingers.
Perhaps using golden raisins instead of currants maybe considered high treason in parts of the world, but my goodness they were a kingly substitution. Deeply caramelized flavors enhanced with holiday spices left everyone in a quite sort of trance, as we each experienced personal nirvanas. The best part by far though was the addition of the Lancashire cheese. Dry, crumbly and almost acid is the best way to describe the cheese’s flavor, but when you added just a small bite to your Eccles Cake it just made everything in the world seem right. The flavors were made for each other.
This was another one of those recipes that made me sit back and think, “Damn, I really have to find an excuse to make these again.”
One down, thirty six to go.