Eccles cake is the first of the traditional foods I researched intentionally and tried accidentally. The BBC in a 2017 article calls it a “British institution.” Hum…I had no idea.
What is an Eccles cake?
Place of origin: Eccles (now in Greater Manchester), England
An Eccles cake is not a cake (by American standard anyway), but a round pastry, about an inch to an inch and a half thick, with a sweet filling inside. The filling usually consists of sugar, vine fruits (currants and raisins), spices, sometimes candied fruit peels, and maybe even a splash of sherry or brandy.
The Law’s Grocer’s Manual by James Thomas Law, published, in 1902 describes Eccles cake as “a sort of currant sandwich, very like Banbury cakes, only not made so dry. There is no definite recipe for them, every confectioner using his own way, the great guiding principle, however, being currants, sweetness and lightness.”
Since Eccles cakes do not have name or geographical protection under EU or UK law, bakers everywhere can make them with their own proprietary recipes/proportions/combinations and still call them Eccles cakes. As you can imagine, this means there are A LOT of varieties out there.
A Brief history
Like many traditional English cakes, Eccles cakes began life as a food eaten during a local religious feast, namely Eccles Wakes, held at the end of August for three days in Eccles. The parish of Eccles was historically part of Lancashire, now part of Greater Manchester.
The Eccles & District History Society credits James Birch as the first person to sell Eccles cakes commercially. Birch opened his shop in 1796 opposite Eccles Parish Church.
No one knows exactly who invented Eccles cakes originally or where Birch’s recipe came from. There is one theory out there that the “sweet patties” from Elizabeth Raffald’s influential cook book, The Experienced English Housekeeper, published in 1769, were the precursors to Eccles cakes. But any evidence linking Raffald and Birch are now lost in history.
Besides the mysterious origin, no one seems to know definitively whether the proper pastry for Eccles cake should be flaky pastry or puff pastry or even short pastry either. The ingredients and proportions for these different types of pastries are quite similar, if not identical. Nonetheless, the different processes and techniques create entirely different textures in the final pastries.
Making a huge assumption that the original Eccles cakes evolved from Raffald’s sweet pies, then the original Eccles cakes were probably made with puff pastry, as that was what Raffald used in her recipe.
Perhaps any pastry would do even back then!?
I read somewhere that Eccles cakes were made by housewives as a way to use up scraps of pastries left from making other dishes. I also have seen references to scraps being used, not only as the outer wrap, but also as part of the inner filling.
What a tasty way to combat food waste!
Interesting facts about Eccles cakes
Eccles cakes are similar to Banbury cakes, Chorley cakes, Cumberland cakes, Hawshead cakes, Coventry Godcakes and Clifton puffs. It seems like old English people really like wrapping their dried fruit mixture in a pastry and call it a cake!
Eccles cakes were super popular in the 1800s. These sweet treats were exported as far as America and the West Indies.
In parts of England, some people refer to Eccles cakes as dead fly pies because the currants look like… dead flies. I think I will stick to calling them Eccles cakes, thank you very much.
Who should try Eccles cakes?
Doh! Everyone. This is one of those crowd pleasers.
Like fashion, they seem to be going in and out of popularity (at least in the UK). In 2004, Greggs decided to stop including Eccles cakes in their lineup, even in their Eccles branch.
But a decade and more later, they are being found in local bakeries in London. I recently asked two English friends what they thought about Eccles cake, one had fond memories of eating them during school lunches. The other one made a face and found it funny that I thought they were delicious.
How to enjoy Eccles cakes?
Eccles cake is typically eaten at room temperature, though I’ve read many recipes suggesting serving it right out of the oven or warming it up in the oven for a few minutes.
The first time I warmed up my Eccles cake, I didn’t have enough patience for the oven to heat up, so I popped it in the microwave. While my cake did not cause any fire, microwaving Eccles cake apparent IS a fire hazard (See 2017 BBC article.)
It also makes the cake super soggy from the butter being melted out of the pastry.
So the lesson of the day is- have more patience! Or just eat it at room temperature. It is delicious either way.
Another way to enjoy an Eccles cake is to eat it with strong Lancashire cheese. That’s how famed restaurant St. John’s serves it.
Where to eat an Eccles cake in London?
Eccles cake seems to have a bit of resurgence. You can find Eccles cake in many bakeries and even supermarkets.
St. John’s bakery at 3 Neal’s Yard, Seven Dials, WC2H 9DP. Or at one of their restaurants.
The Flour Station They have multiple locations, including in Borough Market.
The Old Post Office Bakery at 76 Landor Rd., Clapham, London SW9 9PH. They do have other outlets, including some farmer’s markets.
If you can’t make it to a bakery, I suggest looking for Real Lancashire Eccles Cakes in your supermarket chain. According to their website, this company churns out about 600,000 Eccles cake a week only a few miles outside of Eccles.
I’ve seen this brand in supermarkets (Sainsbury’s, Tesco and ASDA). These are better than they look! Definitely worth a try.
Click here to read my reviews of various Eccles cakes I’ve tried while in London.
Speaking of supermarkets, many of them offer semi-fresh ones from their bakeries. But I find their authenticity a bit questionable. I tried a pair from ASDA. While they taste very good indeed, the texture seems a bit off (super fluffy, chewy and not really flaky).
Making your own Eccles cakes
Here is a recipe for Eccles cakes from St. John’s Bakery, published by The Guardian.
The process of making Eccles cakes seems straight forward. Roll the pastry out, put the prepared filling in the middle. Gather and fold in the sides to enclose the filling, essentially creating a little dumpling.
Turn the pastry dumpling over (so the gathering is on the bottom) and flatten the package by rolling it out a bit. Then, slash the top 2 or 3 times with a knife. These slashes allow steam to escape and provide little windows for views of the enticing currant filling. Some versions also include a sprinkle of sugar on top.