Several years ago I was at a local farmer's market, looking over a baker's spread, when a small round pastry caught my eye. It was neatly stacked on its fellows, each crimped, golden, and speckled with grains of sugar. What's that? I asked the amiable proprietor. Even from my side of the table they looked heavy and firm, like little pats of butter. English Eccles cakes! he said, in a rolling British accent. This sounded distantly familiar, like something I'd read in a book.
The stack of golden cakes stood up stolidly from the other goods around it - the delicate French croissants, the decidedly oversized American muffins, the gaudy danishes and loaves of wheat bread. They were plain and modest, yet irresistible.
When I bit into the cake I found a firm yet yielding pastry, with tender, buttery layers and a hollow in the center oozing with spiced raisins and their treacly syrup. It was astonishingly good — replete with butter and a spicy, mincemeat-like filling.
I wanted to try these things myself. I discovered that Eccles cakes have been a regional specialty in England since the late 1700s. They're similar to Banbury cakes — another tantalizing, seemingly legendary delicacy from my childhood reading. They were first sold by a shopkeeper in the small town of Eccles and they became quite the rage, popular at the local church fairs, and eventually they got themselves exported all over the known world.
But the secret of the recipe was kept close and aspiring copycats had to guess at it. One early recipe included "the meat of a boiled calf's foot (gelatine), plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy." Now, that sounds good. Doesn't it sound good?
So I read a few more recipes, searched out the elusive currant, steeled myself to try puff pastry for the first time, discovered it's not that hard, and made four dozen Eccles cakes for Easter brunch.
It's been a long time since I made these, but I think that they are overdue for a renaissance in my kitchen — perhaps for Easter this Sunday? They are a great way to use puff pastry, which forms the base of these hefty little pastries. You can use storebought puff pastry, or make it yourself from the recipe below (it's truly not hard).
The result is a flaky and toothsome pastry with a tipsy filling of citrus and currants. You could eat a couple for a meal and not regret it. They're all that's good about butter and sugar and the fruit of the vine. There's a reason those English put a stamp on their world - they got their pudding straight, and here's to it!
Makes about 50 smallish cakes
- For the filling:
Peel from 2 lemons
Peel from 2 oranges
fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- For the puff pastry:
(4 sticks) unsalted butter
Between 1 and 1 1/2 cups
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the spices and peel and fry until they are fragrant in the butter. Add the fruit, brandy, and juice. Simmer for ten or fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Let cool, then put in the fridge overnight to let the flavors really meld.
Take three of the sticks of butter and slice them in half lengthwise and then again widthwise. Arrange them into a rectangle on a large piece of wax paper. Put another piece of wax paper on top and roll them the butter out into a 9x12-inch rectangle between the sheets of waxed paper. Chill for at least four hours.
Put the four cups of flour into a food processor. Cut up the remaining stick of butter and add it, bit by bit, to the flour and pulse into dusty crumbs. Dump the butter-flour crumbs into a big bowl and add ice water gradually, stirring, just until the dough comes together. Knead for a couple minutes until smooth. Wrap and refrigerate four hours or overnight.
Roll the dough out into a 1/4-inch-thick rectangle and place the butter rectangle on top. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter and roll out to its previous size. Fold the sides of the dough up to the middle, like folding a piece of paper into thirds, then fold it again in half — like closing a book. You're working the butter into the dough in finer and finer layers; the butter if it stays cold will puff the pastry up in delicious and spectacular ways when you're finished. Wrap this parcel well and put back in the fridge for at least an hour or two.
Take the dough out and roll the parcel out into the rectangle again, then repeat the folding process. This is working the butter into the pastry in finer and finer layers. Continue this process - rolling out, then folding. These are called turns. Do at least four turns - six or more is even better. It's very simple: the longer you let the dough rest and chill between turns, and the more turns you do, the lighter and flakier your pastry will be. I did five turns over the course of about 8 hours, and mine was fine - but if I was doing some other kind of pastry I would definitely let it sit overnight at least once.
Heat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Take a third of the the puff pastry dough from the fridge. It should be very cold and firm, but not hard. Roll it out to a thickness of about 1/8-inch.
Cut small circles - I used a biscuit cutter that gave me four-inch circles. You could do larger, but I wanted a lot of individual pastries. Put a small dollop of filling (about 1 teaspoon) in the center of each dough circle.
Fold in half, like a potsticker dumpling, and seal the edges with your fingers. Now bring the two pointy edges up and fold them in the center, on the curved seam. Flatten out the little pouch with your fingers, and roll it into a small circle - just thin enough that the filling shows through the dough a little. Try not to let it leak out, though. Make two or three shallow slashes in the top of the finished round cake.
Brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle with sugar. (Note: I think that my pastry dough was pretty warm by this point, from all the handling and rolling. I didn't try this at the time, but in the future I think I would put the finished, unbaked pans of cakes in the fridge or freezer to let them chill again - maybe for an hour. This would make a higher, lighter pastry.)
Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and puffy. Try not to eat one immediately - the hot raisin filling will scorch your mouth - believe me, I know. These are amazingly good even a few days later.
More Puff Pastry:
• How to Work with Frozen Puff Pastry
• Kitchen Mysteries: What Makes Puff Pastry Puff?
• How To Braid Puff Pastry
• Pistachio and Chive Goat Cheese on Puff Pastry Wafers
• Melt in Your Mouth: Five Little Nibbles with Puff Pastry
(Images: Faith Durand)