Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Coffee Break - with Eccles Cakes and Miss Read

If you're drinking coffee, you're apt to live longer. 
The National Institute of Health and AARP's recent study of 400,000 is the largest ever...and surprised the pants off researchers, who expected to show that coffee was the Ever-Growing Kiss of Death. Earlier studies had suggested that coffee raised LDL levels ('bad' cholesterol), as well as blood pressure short-term...and those combined do pose a risk of heart disease.
     "Even in the new study," according to the Associated Press article by Marilynn Marchione, "it seemed coffee drinkers were more likely to die at any given time. But they also tended to smoke, drink more alcohol, eat more red meat and exercise less than people who don't drink coffee. Once that was taken into account, a clear pattern emerged: Each cup of coffee per day [caffeine or no caffeine] nudged up the chances of living longer."
     They just don't know why. (See the report here.)

While trying to face the day, first cup of coffee in hand, I enjoy a dip now and then in Miss Read's books. Miss Read, in case you're unfamiliar with her, has a whole English countryside of several towns, and vivid characters, waiting to meet you. They're "cosies," snippets and tidbits of these people's activities all year round -- and a refreshing change from your own. Her Christmas stories are unparalleled, too. (The nearest I can get, American-wise, is Jan Karon's work.)
   Anyhow, Miss Read's people love to add baked goods to their tea and coffee, including something called 'eccles cakes.' Wikipedia defines them as  "a small, round cake filled with currants and made from flaky pastry with butter, which is sometimes topped with demerara sugar." They seem to be something like a date-filled or fruitcake cookie. (The Mama makes a sugar cookie filled with ground raisins that seem to be like these. Looks more like a pancake in the photos, but you eat them out of hand.) Some sources say they're similar to the Banbury cakes of the nursery rhyme...but that doesn't help us Yanks much.
   Here's what the Salford City Council, home of the Eccles cake, says about it:

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 HousekeeperExternal site" 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...
     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?

 How many cakes, cookies or cupcakes do we know that are worthy of being debated in Congress?? Back to the story:

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.

Well, gee. I'd better go dig that calf's foot out of the freezer, and resurrect the French brandy -- or maybe I'll just use the modern recipe below. Surprise your family with this venerable goodie, or have one yourself, preferably while reading something by Miss Read. (I'd recommend Village School or Christmas Tales, for starters, or the first one I ever read -- Mrs. Pringle.)

ECCLES CAKES (courtesy of the Salford City Council)

  • 1lb 2oz/ 500g puff pastry
  • 1oz/ 25g butter, melted
  • Pinch freshly ground nutmeg
  • 2 oz/55g candied peel
  • 4 oz/ 110g sugar
  • 8 oz/ 225g currants


Pre-heat oven to 425°/220°C/Gas 7
  • In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and butter and cook over a medium heat until melted.
  • Off the heat, add currants, candied peel and nutmeg.
  • On a lightly-floured surface, roll the pastry thinly and cut into rounds of about ¼ inch/0.5cm thickness and 4 inch/10cm diameter.
  • Place a small spoonful of filling onto center of each pastry circle.
  • Dampen the edges of the pastry with a little cold water and draw the edges together over the fruit and pinch to seal.
  • Turn over the patty over, then press gently with a rolling pin to flatten the cakes. Snip a V in the top with scissors. Place on a greased baking tray.
  • Brush with water and sprinkle with a little extra sugar.
  • Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes or until lightly browned round the edges.
  • Place on a wire rack and allow to cool.Try not to eat them all at once!

Update: While researching this, I discovered Miss Read, aka Dora Saint, died back on April 7 -- just 10 days short of her 99th birthday. She may not have had the notoriety of a Robert Ludlum or Clive Cussler...but her books were never out of print. Reading them, I felt as if I were talking to an old and trusted friend. Take a look at her obituary for more. Her bibliography is here.More on her life, and the area she lived in here.
   Rest in peace, Miss Read. We will miss you.

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