While researching Eccles cake, I inadvertently came across Banbury cake. After all, you can say they are pastry cousins. First cousins born in different parts of the country.
What is a Banbury cake?
Place of origin: Banbury, England
Like Eccles cakes, Banbury cakes are not cakes per se (at least in the eyes of this ignorant American), but rather, flat currant filled pastries. Unlike Eccles cake though, Banbury cakes are usually oval, not round. The oblong shape also gets a few slashes on top.
What’s in a Banbury cake?
Although named after its birth place, Banbury, these cakes do not have name or geographical protection. So there is no specific requirements.
Many variations of the cake exist. As old recipes were guarded as secrets, generations of bakers created their own versions by sampling, guessing and recreating from what they’d tasted. The earliest published recipe, appearing in The English Hus-wife in 1615, includes currants, eggs, barm (malt liquor), cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, cream, milk, butter and flour.
Old recipes, such as the one from 1615, differ from the modern ones, not only in shape, but also in method and flavor. You could say that the recipe “evolves” with people’s taste buds. If you follow The English Hus-wife receipt to the T, it probably would have resulted in a much denser product, something more like a loaf of bread than a flaky pastry.
Modern recipes usually call for puff pastry to make the cakes lighter and also use spices and currants. Sometimes bakers may also add a splash of alcohol to bring out the sumptuous flavors. Rumor has it that the secret recipe long used in Banbury includes rum and brandy.
A Brief history
Banbury cakes date back centuries. Banbury is a historic market town in Oxfordshire. It is about 30 miles north of Oxford and 30 miles south of Coventry.
The exact origin of Banbury cake is unclear. The first written reference to Banbury cake appeared in Treatise of Melancholy by Timothy Bright published in 1586.
According to Cake & Cockhorse, a publication by Banbury Historical Society, Banbury cakes were first sold in town starting in 1608 at 12 Parsons Street.
But supposedly, centuries earlier, crusaders returning to England also brought back a currant spice cakes- Holy cakes, which inspired the creation of Banbury cakes.
Banbury, being a historic market town, close to Oxford and Birmingham, means that Jewish traders were more than likely to have been present. But whether they were the original creators of the cakes, well, no one really knows.
Another theory has Banbury cakes being adapted and created from Hamantash (Haman’s ears) that Jews eat at the Festival of Purim. Records show that Jews settled in England predating the crusades. After King Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290, some Jews remained in the area and practiced their faith secretly.
Interesting facts about Banbury cakes
Old recipes from centuries past used yeast as the leavening agent before the invention of chemical rising agent. Many old recipes also call for “double paste” to be used- one to mix in with the filling, and one to use as the envelop.
Some say Banbury cakes were the original English currant cakes and that all the other cakes, i.e. Eccles cakes, Chorley cakes and even black buns, all are spinoffs of the Banbury cake.
Banbury cakes seem to be related to bride cakes. The associated to weddings was even mentioned in Bright’s Treatise of Melancholy.
Who should try Banbury cakes?
I think Banbury cakes are worth trying if you like sweet and flaky pastries. It’s a good on-the-go snack. Freshly baked, preferably straight from the oven, are always better than ones that have been sitting in the display case for a while.
What’s the difference between a Banbury cake and an Eccles cake?
This is THE million dollar question. Besides the fact that one is round and the other is oval, there are very few inherently distinctive features that set them apart. Both have a pastry outer shell. Both have a mincemeat filling.
After trying half a dozen Eccles and Banbury cakes, (read about my quest to try them all here), I can tell you from experience that they taste very similar (accounting for some chef/bakehouse interpretation liberty). I have not detected any pattern or trend during my taste tests.
Where to buy Banbury cakes?
Banbury cakes seem to not be as popular as Eccles cake in London. I’ve only found two bakeries, Rinkoffs Bakery and Percy Ingle, that offer them. Online, I was able to find bakeries in Oxfordshire that offer Banbury cakes.
If you can’t locate a store near you, perhaps try ordering them online at Brown’s Original Banbury cake. They still handmade Banbury cakes in Banbury area. Run by Philip Brown, the same family has been making these cakes for centuries. I didn’t get a chance to order one when we were in the UK last, but it’s on my to-eat list when we return.