The history behind (and recipe for) Eccles Cakes

James Birch's shop in Eccles, the original home of the world-famous Eccles cake

Forget black puddings of dubious origin, or Yorkshire puddings that fail to rise - Eccles cakes are the dessert for the discerning palate.

History of the Eccles Cake

In 1793 James Birch's shop on the corner of Vicarage Road in Eccles began selling small, flat, raisin-filled cakes. They sold, quite literally, like hot cakes!

Earlier, in 1769, Mrs Elizabeth Raffald, the housekeeper and owner of a confectioner's shop in Arley Hall, Cheshire, wrote an influential cookery book, "The Experienced English Housekeeper" which became a best seller. The book contained a recipe for "sweet patties" with ingredients identifiably similar to the Eccles cakes of today. Could this have been the recipe seized upon by a cookery-mad servant girl who took a copy of the book with her when she went to live in ... Eccles?

Whatever the murky origins of the cakes, James Birch was certainly the first person credited with selling them on a commercial basis. They were sold from a shop at the corner of Vicarage Road and St Mary's Road (now known as Church Street) in Eccles.

However, the story becomes lost in the mists of time. Although the shop's letterhead in the 1870s showed that the firm was established in 1796, the land tax returns show that a James Birch first appeared as a "shopkeeper" in Eccles in 1785.

Whether James Birch made a name for his cakes in the 1780s, in 1796, or indeed some time later, is now impossible to say. It is equally impossible to construct a link between James Birch and Elizabeth Raffald (who died four years before the opening of Birch's shop).

More recently the question of origin of Eccles Cakes has been raised in Parliament. A question was tabled regarding the future of cakes made outside Eccles to the same ingredients. Could non Eccles-made cakes still be referred to (and sold) as Eccles cakes?

Worldwide fame

Although traditionally made in the town from where they get their name, Eccles cakes are now famous throughout the world.

As early as 1818 they were said to be sold "at all the markets and fairs around and are even exported to America and the West Indies".

Eccles Cakes are sometimes, though always with affection, referred to as 'dead fly pies'!

The definitive recipe for Eccles Cakes?

Throughout history, families making Eccles and (the similar) Banbury cakes have all kept their recipes as closely guarded secrets. One of the most famous expressions in Eccles is "The secret dies with me!".

The authors of cookery books would therefore have had to invent their own recipes based on the taste of the cakes they purchased at different shops. 17th Century recipes for Banbury cakes do exist but show that they differ from 19th Century ones. A major difference was the use of yeast which was necessary before the introduction of raising agents.

Although no 18th Century and only a few 19th Century cookery books give recipes specifically for Eccles cakes, it may well be that early ones differ from those known today.

Mrs Raffald's original recipe for "sweet patties" of 1769 was a mixture of the meat of a boiled calf's foot (gelatine), plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy enveloped in a good puff pastry which could be either fried or baked. The use of the word "meat" [or "mincemeat"] in the early recipes serves as a reminder that meat was originally an ingredient in mincemeat.

The fact that Eccles cakes were being exported by 1818 also suggests very good keeping qualities, so they may well have included spirits such as brandy and rum. No wonder the Puritans wanted to ban them.

Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Pre-heat oven to 220°C

Ingredients:

  • 500g flaky pastry
  • 25g melted butter
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 50g candied peel
  • 1 tsp allspice 
  • 100g sugar 
  • 200g currants

Method:

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and butter and cook over a medium heat until melted
  2. Off the heat, add currants, candied peel, nutmeg and allspice
  3. On a lightly-floured surface, roll the pastry thinly and cut into rounds of about 0.5cm thickness and 10cm diameter
  4. Place a small spoonful of filling onto centre of each pastry circle
  5. Dampen the edges of the pastry and draw the edges together over the fruit and pinch to seal
  6. Turn over, then press gently with a rolling pin to flatten the cakes
  7. Flatten and snip a V in the top with scissors. Place on a baking tray
  8. Brush with water and sprinkle with a little extra sugar
  9. Bake in a hot oven for 20 minutes (220°C) or until lightly browned round the edges
  10. Place on a wire rack and allow to cool.
  11. Try not to eat them all at once!

NOTE: Please refer to the "See also" area on right of this page if you are not familiar with metric measurements for an online measurement conversion tool.

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This page was last updated on 11 June 2014

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