Saturday, 11 September 2010

Nose to Tail and Beyond - Eccles Cake Heaven

Inspired by St John's Eccles Cakes Recipe

My idea of mid-afternoon heaven is a pot of strong tea and an Eccles Cake at St John Bread and Wine.  Unfortunately I can't live there, but I can make my own juicy little fruit-filled parcels with a little help from Fergus Henderson's wonderfully straightforward book Nose to Tail Eating - A Kind of British Cooking.

The origins of the commercially baked Eccles Cake take us to 1793 when James Birch began selling little currant-filled pastries from his bakers shop in the small Lancashire town of Eccles. The home-baked version appeared much earlier.  It's traditional to slash the top of the cake three times to signify the holy trinity.  When they came to power in 1650, Cromwell's puritans thought them so rich and delicious that they banned them.  Well, no wonder they are so popular! 

The recipe is fiercely debated, but if cooking didn't evolve would we find it so interesting? What is certain is that what is needed is pastry, currants, butter, sugar and spices.  Fergus deflects any criticism from purists by making it clear from the outset that his recipe is for St John's Eccles Cakes.  Instead of lard in the pastry, which surely would have been used originally (and you would expect it to be used at St John if anywhere), he has opted for a classic butter puff pastry, with allspice and nutmeg as spicing.  Having made and eaten Eccles Cakes as a child, my vote goes to Fergus every time. 

Pastry made and resting in the fridge, I set about the currants, sugar and spice mixture.  The smell was so good I got impatient waiting for it to cool down and resorted to the ice-box for a quick blast of cold air.  My instinct is always to roll pastry as thinly as possible so I failed to follow the instructions to roll it to only 8mm thick.  This made for an interesting time trying not to overstretch the pastry to bursting point when forming my little fragrant bundles - by handling them as little as possible I just got away with it.  Realising my error, I experimented rolling the pastry for the next a little thicker then the next thicker still. 

The thin pastry ones (right of pic) disappeared in three heavenly bites.  They probably won out for deliciousness as the thicker versions used re-rolled pastry (never a good idea) and some would justifiably consider the balance of pastry and filling to be very wrong.

A note about the recipe: I feel the sugar for dipping is better granulated or demerara than caster, and I found 200oC was the right heat for baking (Fergus' recipe states medium to hot).  Also,the recipe I have shown here incorporates Fergus' change to the assembly of the cakes as set out in his second book (Beyond Nose to Tail) written with his brilliant baker, Justin Piers Gellatly.

St John's Eccles Cakes
Makes at least a dozen cakes depending how thin you decide to roll it - if you have pastry left over it freezes very well.

125g (4 oz) cold butter (butter A), cold from the fridge
500g (18oz) strong white flour
A pinch of salt
250ml (9fl oz) of water
375g (14oz) unsalted butter (butter B), cold from the fridge

50g (1½ oz)unsalted butter
100g (3½ oz)dark brown sugar
200g (7oz) currants
1 tsp ground alspice
1 tsp grated nutmeg

1 egg white, beaten with a fork
a shallow bowl of caster or granulated sugar

TO MAKE THE PUFF PASTRY:  Mix butter A with the flour and salt using your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, then cautiously add the water and mix until you have a firm paste.  Pat into a square and wrap in clingfilm.  Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour before using.

Once rested, roll the paste into a rectangle about 8mm thick, then beat butter B between greasproof paper into a rectangle  smaller than half the paste rectangle.  Lay the butter on the paste, leaving a space at the end.  Fold the unbuttered half over the butter and fold the edges over, so you now have butter in a paste package.  Pat square, wrap in cling film, and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

Roll out into a rectangle in the opposite direction to your initial major fold (each time you roll out the pastry to fold, turn your pastry and roll across the previous direction you rolled, you will have to sprinkle flour on the surface of your rolling pin - it is very important to dust the flour off the paste before folding it at every turn in the process).  Once the pastry is approximately 1cm to 1.5cm thick, fold like a traditional letter, with one end of the rectangle to the to the halfway mark, and the other end over this.  Pat square and place in the fridge for at least 15 minutes to rest again.  Repeat this process two more times, but no more.  Return to the fridge and rest for at least 1 hour.  

TO MAKE THE FILLING:  Melt the butter and sugar together, add the dry ingredients, mix well, and leave to cool. 
Preheat your oven to 200oC/gas 6.

TO MAKE THE ECCLES CAKES:  Roll the puff pastry out to 8mm thick and cut circles approximately 10cm in diameter.  Place a blob of your filling mixture in the centre of the circle and pull up the side of the pastry to cover the filling.  Seal it with your fingers, then turn it over and slash the top 3 times.  Paint the top with the egg white, then sprinkle the sugar over.  Bake for 15-20 minutes.  They can be eaten hot or cold but slightly warm is best of all.  Lancashire cheese is a traditional accompaniment.

Inspired by and adapted from Nose to Tail Eating (Fergus Henderson) and Beyond Nose to Tail (Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly)