We lined up in the cold, not noticing the cold, waiting for the doors to open. When they did, it was chins and boots and elbows, no queues, we just fought our way in. Lamplight and decorations had transformed the schoolroom from a prison into a banqueting hall. The long trestle-tables were patterned with food; fly-cake, brown buns, ham-sandwiches.
Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee, Outings and Festivals
If you haven't yet tried an Eccles cake, you are in for a proper treat. I can't quite believe that I lived through my first 20 years without knowing of their very particular joy. As someone who has (despite early appearances on this blog) much more of a savoury than a sweet tooth, they're ideal for a weekend elevenses. They're sometimes (as they are above) called fly-cakes, for the same reason I imagine my great-grandmother called fig biscuits fly-cakes: they look like they could be filled with squashed flies. Served with a slice of Lancashire cheese and a pot of strong tea (or glass of port), I first fell in love with them at one of my favourite London restaurants: St John's Bread and Wine. I've always been happy to go quite a long distance out of my way to pick one up but, as soon as I came across them in Cider with Rosie, decided I should give making them myself a go.
As I covet their Eccles cakes so faithfully, I sought out St John's unique* recipe, and first gave it a go last May. Frustratingly, they failed. After baking, each ball left the oven a dense, oozing rock cake (of sorts). My confidence knocked, I decided to put the recipe aside for a little while. I was then distracted by 80-something others. Last weekend, feeling lucky and bolstered by a cool evening, I decided to give them another go. I took my time, returning to the pastry in between other tasks. I had also been on a croissant making course in the meantime, which gave me a couple of useful tips (which I've included in the recipe below). Turns out second time was the charm; I was thrilled with the outcome, and they're going straight on the café menu.
If I haven't yet sold you on Eccles cakes, at least let me sell you on Cider with Rosie, a beautiful, lyrical account of Laurie Lee's childhood in Gloucestershire. Having spent a fair amount of time in this area myself, with my English family, the world Lee paints feels so familiar - despite it being nearly 100 years ago. If you haven't yet read it, do.
* A note on the uniqueness of the recipe. The pastry they use at St John's is vegetarian, and therefore doesn't contain the traditional suet. I have no doubt that the traditional version is delicious, but now that I've tried the glorious flakiness of St John's, I can't go back.
Pastry (make a double batch if you think you'll use it - it freezes really well)
65g unsalted butter (cold from the fridge and chopped into small cubes)
250g strong white bread flour
190g block of unsalted butter (cold from the fridge)
25g unsalted butter
50g dark brown sugar
Generous grating of nutmeg
For the top
1 egg white
10cm diametre plate, to use as a guide
1. Rub the smaller amount of butter into the flour and salt until it resembles breadcrumbs. Dribble the water in, bit by bit, until the dough comes together into a firm ball. Shape the dough into a rough cube, wrap it in cling film and put it in the fridge for an hour. Don't scrimp on the resting time - the butter in this dough needs to be very cold and firm before it is rolled out.
2. Roll the dough out to about 8mm thick. Put the block of butter between two pieces of greaseproof paper and bash it with a rolling pin into a rectangle less than half the size of the pastry rectangle. Lay the butter in the middle of the pastry, and fold the pastry edges in and seal them on top of the butter, overlapping where necessary and ensuring that there are no gaps. The major rule with puff pastry is that you need to avoid any leaking butter, so be gentle with the pastry and make sure the butter is really firm after each rest period, or it will spill out. Wrap the butter filled dough in cling film and return to the fridge for at least thirty minutes.
3. If you have warm hands (like me) and you're overcautious (like me), stick your hands in a bowl of iced water before this next step. Take the pastry from the fridge, flour your bench and rolling pin, place the pastry on the bench with the short edge parallel to you and roll it out until it is about 60cm long. Try to avoid making it wider if you can. Next, fold the top quarter of the pastry into the middle, then bring the bottom quarter up to meet it in the middle. Fold the whole lot in half though the middle. You should have created four layers of pastry. Wrap it in cling film and rest again, for another thirty minutes.
4. Chill your hand again (you might not have to - I think I'm making this sound more difficult than it is), and repeat the step above. This time, roll the pastry out in the opposite direction, and fold again. Return to the fridge for another thirty minutes.
5. While the pastry is chilling, prepare the filling. Melt the butter and sugar together in the saucepan, then stir the currants and spices through. Allow to cool completely, in the fridge if necessary.
6. Roll and fold the pastry one more time, then rest for a final thirty minutes. Preheat the oven to 210C. When the pastry is chilled, roll it out to 8mm thick. Cut 10cm rounds of pastry. Put just more than a tablespoon of the filling in the middle of each, then press round the edges of the pastry disc until they're thinner than the centre. Pull the sides of the pastry up over the filling, then seal the pastry together with your fingertips. Turn the Eccles cake over and roll the base around a little on the bench until it is smooth. Transfer to a lined baking tray. Repeat with the rest of the pastry.
7. Make three slashes (for the Holy Trinity) in the top of each cake with a serrated knife. Whisk the egg white until slightly foamy, then paint it onto each Eccles cake with the pastry brush. Sprinkle the top of each with some caster sugar.
8, Bake for 15 - 20 minutes until golden brown and flaky. Serve either hot or cold, with a hard cheese.