Eccles cakes may look a bit unassuming on the outside, but that pastry is wonderfully rich and crisp with a sticky, gently spiced fruity filling. These are a British treat you need to try!
I was just talking recently with someone about how it’s hard to imagine now, with how international things have become, but treats when I were young were really very British. These days Italian-style cafes will see panettone, Danish pastries are everywhere and muffins sit alongside British scones and more.
Having access to such a breadth of flavors is great, of course, but sadly I do think some traditional treats are getting a bit lost. Eccles cakes, I think, are one of them.
What are Eccles cakes?
Eccles cakes are baked goods named after the town of Eccles. They are a small round pastry filled with currants that are flavored with citrus and warm spices. Personally I’d call them a pastry or hand pie rather than the cake in the name, but all you really need to know is they are delicious.
No one knows exactly when they were first made, but there are historical records of them being sold in Eccles, that was part of Lancashire and is now in greater Manchester, in 1793.
You will still find them around in tea shops, particularly in the North of England, but they do seem to be becoming less common, I think, and I certainly haven’t found them in the US. The perfect excuse to make them at home!
What is the difference between Eccles cakes and Chorley cakes?
If you haven’t heard of Eccles cakes, it’s unlikely you have heard of Chorley cakes, I know. But for the sake of clarity in case you come across one or other, they are both similar and from Lancashire but have a couple of differences.
Both are filled with currants but Eccles cakes are made with a flaky pastry, while Chorley cakes are made with shortcrust pastry. Chorley cakes are generally less sweet and thinner and may be served with some butter or cheese on top. Eccles cakes are usually served on their own, although cheese does pair well. And alongside a cup of tea, of course. (Or coffee, if you prefer, as I tend to.)
Variations in Eccles cakes pastry and filling
There are two parts to making Eccles cakes – the pastry and the sweet currant filling. Some people suggest using puff pastry, and while they might look a little more impressive, I personally always think of them as having more of a flaky pastry and think this fits better.
There are various methods to ensuring the pastry is flaky, but essentially you want to work with cold butter and make sure you keep some flecks of butter in the mixture rather than creaming it all in.
The filling is traditionally currants, though you can add in some other fruit like mixed peel, or even apple in some recipes. If you can’t find currants, you could substitute raisins or golden raisins/sultanas, but they don’t have quite the same punch of flavor.
I struggle to get decent mixed peel (and you don’t want to use the dyed stuff) so just as in my Christmas pudding, I use died papaya, cut in a small dice.
Personally I find the mixture very sweet, but that is how they traditionally are (and I still like it!). If you have less of a sweet tooth, you could reduce the sugar a bit, but you don’t want to too much, as it helps give that wonderful stickiness.
How to make Eccles cakes
- Put the butter in the freezer ahead of time.
- Grate the butter into the flour, add water and cut it together, being careful not to mix too much.
- Wrap and chill the pastry.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter and mix in the sugar, currants and spices for the filling.
- Roll out the pastry and cut out circles.
- Fill with some of the filling, pinch the pastry over to form a filled ball and flatten.
- Cut slits to let out air on one side, brush with egg and dust with sugar then bake.
See how they come together in this short video:
You can vary quite how thick the pastry is a bit to taste. There are pros and cons to both, in my mind. I personally like more filling to pastry, but it’s also nice to have a good level of crisp pastry on the outside too. I made some thicker in pastry (like above), others thinner (like below) to compare.
Personally, I couldn’t decide which was my favorite (though it was good to have the excuse to try a couple!).
You may find that some butter comes out of the pastry as they cook. This isn’t something to worry about, it’s just the pastry is very rich.
The air vents help hot air out but may let a little filling escape. It’s unlikely to be much, and does give a nice stickiness, if less pretty. Do make sure you seal them as well as you can to avoid any more of the filling leaking.
These Eccles cakes are a delicious combination of crisp pastry with sweet and flavorful fruity filling. They bring back memories for me, and now, apparently, I have my kids hooked on them too. And I can completely understand why.
For the pastry
- 140 g all purpose flour 1 cup (plain flour)
- 1 pinch salt
- 115 g unsalted butter 8oz(1 stick)
- 80 ml cold water 1/3 cup (may need slightly more)
For the filling
- 30 g unsalted butter 2 tbsp
- 120 g currants 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp
- 70 g brown sugar
- 1 lemon zest (ie from 1 lemon)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp allspice
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 30 g dried papaya 1/4 cup (or mixed peel but not dyed.) Diced small so similar size to currants
To finish off
- 1 egg for eggwash - won't use all. You can also just use egg white
- 1 1/2 tsp cane sugar (or granulated sugar - any relatively coarse)
Night before baking
- Put the butter for the pastry in the freezer overnight before baking.
When ready to bake
- Put the flour and salt in a bowl and mix together. Grate the butter directly into the flour, dipping the end of the butter in the flour if you need to avoid clumping. Use a blunt knife and cut the butter in to the flour to mix, breaking up clumps but you still want the little pieces of butter in there.
- Mix in the water so that the dough comes together - press together with your hands. Use a little more water if needed but the dough should be a little dry. Wrap the dough in plastic/cling wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter for the filling in a small pan. Remove from heat and add the currants, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and diced dried papaya or mixed peel. Set aside until ready to use.
- Once pastry has chilled, preheat oven to 400F/200C and line a large baking sheet/tray. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to approx 4-5mm/ 1/5in thick. Cut out circles 10cm/4in diameter and place around one tbsp of the filling in each.
- Pinch together the sides of the circle of pastry to join it together, using a little water if needed to help it stick. They should feel pretty well filled, so not too much extra pastry but not about to burst open. Turn the pastry over so the join is on the bottom, put on the lined baking sheet and gently press down to flatten slightly. Repeat with the rest of the circles and roll out the trimmings of the pastry again to make more.
- Once all of the Eccles cakes have been formed, make sure you seal up any breaks in the pastry and cut 2-3 small slits in the top of each.
- Beat the egg and brush over the top of each then sprinkle on a little sugar. Bake for approximately 25 minutes until golden. Allow to cool before eating as the filling will be very hot.
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