I don’t know why, but I have always had a fascination with mincemeat. I don’t even remember the first time I ate this boozy filling in a pie, but I must have been a child and for some strange reason this little girl, who was quite a picky eater, when it came to new foods and food with strange names, never questioned whether there really was meat in this rather sweet and spicy dessert. I just thought it tasted good. Flash forward to 1982 and my first trip to the island across the pond: I remember having an Eccles Cake at a picnic at Windsor Great Park watching Prince Charles miss the wooden ball during the Queen’s Cup polo match. I don’t think it was the best Eccles Cake I have ever had, but it was the beginning of my love affair with them.
Eccles Cakes were first sold in 1793 in a shop in the village of Eccles, which is now part of Greater Manchester, but the original recipe may have been adapted from a cookbook from 1769 called The Experienced English House-Keeper by Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald, who was from Cheshire. The author called them “Sweet Patties” and the filling contained the meat of a boiled calf’s foot (gelatine), apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy.
Nowadays, you will find all types of additions to the “traditional” Eccles Cake filling, but the traditional filling is the same as the recipe I adapted from Dan Lepard: currants, lemon zest and brandy. I added candied peel, which might horrify traditionalists, but I like the added flavour. You might even find recipes with spices such as nutmeg or cinnamon, but I think this takes away from the lovely naked fruity taste of the currants , and you should never, ever, use puff pastry, because then you would not be able to call them Eccles Cakes any more; they would have to be called Chorley cakes.
I think they are nice to eat any time, but this year they were a tasty treat for our Tu Bishvat table. Dan Lepard’s recipe is easy to make and the dough is a dream to work with; yes, it is a little time-consuming, but well worth it. These make rather large cakes, which you could easily make into 24 smaller cakes for a more reasonable portion.
Note: I found the currants at Eden Teva Market in Netanya.
Adapted recipe from Dan Lepard
Note: I have tried to convert the measurements as precisely as I can for the American readers, but it is better to use the precise metric measurements if you have a scale.
400 grams (4 cups) strong white flour (I used '00')
1 tsp salt
25 grams (2 tablespoons) caster (granulated) sugar
175g (1-1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter or margarine, cut into small cubes
50g (3-1/2 tablespoons) butter or margarine, cut into small cubes
1 medium egg yolk (keep the egg white for later)
100ml (a little less than 1/2 cup) cold water
75ml (1/3 cup) cold milk or cold water
500g (18 oz) Zante currants
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon candied orange peel, finely chopped
1 tablespoon candied lemon peel, finely chopped
100g (7 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons brandy (optional)
Place the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl and add the butter or margarine. Whisk the egg yolk with the water and milk or just water, and mix with the flour to a firm dough. Wrap, chill for 30-60 minutes, then, dusting the work surface with a little flour, roll into a 2cm (3/4-inch) thick rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds, then re-roll it to the same size and fold again. Wrap and chill for 30-60 minutes. Repeat the double roll, fold and chill twice more.
Place the currants in a bowl, pour 500ml (2 cups) of boiling water and set aside for five minutes. Drain thoroughly, then mix the currants with the lemon zest, candied lemon and orange, butter or margarine and brandy, and put in the refrigerator while finishing preparing the dough.
Roll the pastry to 2cm (3/4-inch) thick, cut in half and keep one half chilled while you roll the other half into a 0.25cm (1/15-inch) thick rectangle. Cut the dough into six (12 for the smaller version) equal squares.
Place a 50-60g (3-1/2 to 4 tablespoons) ball of currants (or half that if you are making the smaller cakes) in the centre of each one, dampen the edges with water and pinch them together to form a tight seal so the filling will not spill out.
Flip it over, round the shape with your fingers, roll out slightly to flatten and place them seam down on a baking tray lined with a silpat or nonstick paper. Repeat with the other pastry and filling.
Brush with beaten egg white, sprinkle with sugar, slash the tops and bake at 200C (180C fan-assisted)/390F for about 30 minutes.