My mum is coming to visit me this weekend. All the way from “the North”. That mythical place where it always rains, is full of men in flat caps racing pigeons and pub landladies serving hotpots. To celebrate I have baked her some Eccles Cakes. I really hope she loves them. Along with Cadbury’s flakes, the drummer from Kings of Leon, little ginger cats and a cup of tea at ANY TIME OF THE DAY, Eccles cakes are one of the things I can count on my mummy to adore.
Having never baked them before there was only one person to turn to for advice. Delia. In a recipe book my boyfriend’s mum gave me at the weekend I read all about Delia’s approach to making pastry -she advised us to make it with determination, with boldness! – and crossed my fingers that I would be able to pull off “a squashed fly pie” as they are so brilliantly known.
*225g plain flour *175g margarine *a good pinch of salt *some water to mix, and for the filling: *75g butter *150g soft brown butter *150g currants *1 tsp cinnamon *1/2 tsp of freshly grated nutmeg (I confess I just used the stuff out of the jar) *the grated rind of a large orange *50g finely chopped mixed peel, to finish off: *milk *caster sugar
1. To make the pastry, weigh the margarine (hard from the refrigerator), then wrap it in a piece of foil and place it in the freezing compartment of the fridge for half an hour.
2. Meanwhile sift the flour and salt into a bowl, then when you take the margarine out of the freezer, hold it with the foil, dip it into the flour, then grate it on a coarse grater placed in the bowl over the flour. I found this hard-going but just really make sure the marge is super-cold.
3. Carry on dipping the margarine down into the flour to make it easier to grate. When you have finished you will have a lump of grated margarine sitting in the middle of the flour.
4. Then take a palette knife and start to cut the fat into the flour (don’t use your hands) until the mixture is crumbly. Now add enough water so that it forms a dough that leaves the bowl clean (you can use your hands for the dough), then place it in a polythene bag and chill it in the main part of the refrigerator for half an hour.
5. Later, prepare the filling by first melting the butter in a small saucepan. Then take it off the heat and stir in all the filling ingredients quite thoroughly and leave it to cool.
6. Delia says, next turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface. Roll it out to about 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick, then using a plain 3¼ inch (8 cm) cutter, cut the pastry into rounds. Put a teaspoon of the filling on to each round, then brush the edge of half the circle of pastry with water, and bring the other side up and seal it. Then bring the corners up to the centre, and pinch to seal well. Now turn your sealed pastry parcel over, so that the seam is underneath, then gently roll the whole thing to flatten it to about ¼ inch thick (½ cm), and pat it into a round shape. As it turns out, I didn’t quite follow this advice, but made the cakes as you would filled pasta – two stamped out shapes with the filling inside, then sealed and squished – and it turned out alright!
7. Place them all on a greased baking sheet and gash each cake diagonally across three times, using a sharp knife. Now brush them with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar, and bake them in the oven pre-heated to gas mark 7, 425ºF (220ºC) for about 15 minutes until golden-brown. Then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.
If you’re not sure about baking with pastry – and I admit it can be intimidating! – just stay cool, literally. Make sure your hands are cold at all times when handling the pastry (I sometimes hold a bag of frozen peas before-hand to get them very cold) and work quickly. Try not to over-work the pastry, keep it light. Really, if I can do it, when I am at times nothing less than a moron, then I promise you can too.
The cakes I baked tonight were – phew, thank goodness! – a success. Savoury, flaky pastry pillows full of juicy, festive fruit. Salty and sweet. Made for devouring with a cup of fragrant, light tea. Marvellous.