There is a great tradition of sweet pastry making in Lancashire : Chorley cakes, Goosnargh cakes , Grasmere gingerbread (Grasmere was part of the county palatine until it was spirited into the new county of Cumbria by soulless officials), and perhaps most famously of all Eccles cakes.
The history of the Eccles cake is unclear, though it is known that in times past they were particularly associated with the local September Wakes week (now shifted to July), a sweet treat for the industrial workers of this small town near Salford during their all too rare holidays. It is claimed that James Birch first made them commercially in the late 18th century, but that Elizabeth Raffald, housekeeper turned confectioner, popularised them by including the recipe in her best-selling book published in 1769, The Experienced English Housekeeper.
The nature of the cake fits in with its humble origins. It is a delightfully and deceptively simple confection: puff or flaky pastry, brown sugar, and currants, with the currants making up at least a third of the weight of the combined ingredients. The cake is always circular, and the filled pastry is flattened slightly before being glazed with egg or milk, and sprinkled with sugar.
As with so many traditional products there are inevitable arguments about the niceties of the Eccles cake: some would incorporate the currants in the pastry, others use them as a filling; some cut slashes in the top to let the filling show, others do not. The best, or at least most authentic, can be recognized, however, by the sugar sprinkled on the outside being caramelised to some extent as very hot ovens are thought to be part of the traditional method of baking them. Another mark of excellence is that the pastry should not be at all ‘claggy’ – the best is made with butter, and melts rather than sticking to the roof of the mouth.
Today some makers add candied peel, spices such as nutmeg or cinnamon, and even Golden Syrup, all of which bring a little more interest to suit the modern palate, but could also be seen as regrettable deviations from the perfect simplicity of the original. What cannot be countenanced is the use of shortcrust pastry in an Eccles cake – that is a Chorley cake (a mistake that was made by even so marvellous a food writer as the late Jane Grigson in her generally brilliant “English Food”).