Last December, in the first of a series of we’re now calling “Cakes from the Collection,” we made Emily Dickinson’s 20 pound black cake. Recently, Team Cake gathered again to produce the second in our series, a very different challenge in the form of delicately crisp Eccles Cakes. Our friends in England will not require any instruction on the nature of Eccles cake, but those reading from elsewhere in the world may be unfamiliar with the treat named for the English town in which they were first sold commercially at the end of the 1700s. The currant-filled buttery pastries are not necessarily immediately recognizable as cakes. Indeed, a colleague leaving early from the party at which we served our Eccles cakes lamented that she would be “missing the cakes.” Assured that the table was in fact currently full of Eccles cakes she could only nod and “oh.” While not much on offer in our neck of the woods, the cakes are still quite popular today in England, though the recipe has certainly changed over the years, as we discovered by working backwards from our source: a neatly penned 20th century index card recipe from the Mary Hyde Eccles papers.
In what seems to be the first published recipe for what would become known as Eccles cake, Elizabeth Raffald’s The experienced English housekeeper of 1769 instructs ladies, housekeepers, cooks, &c to “Take the Meat of a boiled Calf’s-Foot, two large Apples, and one Ounce of candied Orange, chop them very small, grate half a Nutmeg, mix them with the Yolk of an Egg a Spoonful of French Brandy, and a quarter of a Pound of Currants clean washed and dried” and roll the ingredients in a “good puff Paste.” Fortunately, this recipe was something we could file as background research and not our mission: boiled feet being, as they are, general non-starters for our pastry experiments.
Though it would have been enjoyable to work from other early recipes for Eccles Cakes, like the one presented in John Smith’s early vegetarian cookbook, Vegetable Cookery, &c (1866) which begins with the now somewhat perplexing directive: “Procure some pieces of tin, about a foot long, and six, nine or more inches wide,” our source was instead something interestingly much more familiar to us.
Admittedly, some time was spent looking for something in the chocolate family as our next project, but we felt there was a useful symmetry to the Eccles cakes and Dickinson’s black cake: currants, for one, loads of fresh grated spice for another. But across a century’s divide, the experience of working with the recipe was also radically different. With Dickinson’s cake we agonized. We couldn’t just imagine ourselves into her kitchen. We had so many questions and things to learn. We felt there was something we could embody through adhering to the archival evidence in making that cake.
With Mary Hyde’s recipe, we confess that we did not adhere slavishly to the archival evidence. We did not follow the Viscountess’s recipe to the letter, as we did Emily’s. Though, of course, we respected it in and of itself and as an item of archival integrity, Mary’s index card recipe from the latter half of the 20th-century just didn’t seem as sacrosanct as Emily Dickinson’s black cake. Perhaps this was mostly because the time which stood between us was not as great and the format we received the recipe in was so like that a mother or grandmother might have passed down to us that it was easier to argue with. The passage of time may change this orientation.
While we knew we wanted to try these little pastries, to join a part of our experience to Mary Hyde’s, we balked at the Pepperidge Farm puff pastry she called for–partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and high fructose corn syrup also being non-starters for us. But who knows. Maybe 150 years from now researchers will spend hours in the archives, trying to piece together the exact list of ingredients for the once popular, now extinct, Pepperidge Farm pastry.
So, we went for a real butter puff pastry as our first change. There was a moment when we considered, of course, making our own puff, but the reality of a sweltering July day and a goal of producing 150 cakes made us reconsider. Then we returned, unexpectedly, to the same conversation we’d had about the lack of salt in Emily’s black cake recipe. Here again, no salt. For our cakes, in went a balancing pinch. We also filled in the ambiguous direction to include “spice” and so in addition to the fresh grated nutmeg, we contributed allspice, cinnamon, clove, and ginger. Then, over the course of three test bakes, we progressively reduced the sugar called for by 75%. Plenty sweet still, we were told in the reviews of our colleagues, readers, faculty, and friends. We also chose to read the recipe’s direction to “peel spices to taste” as a minor typo, a missing comma. Those future historically-informed culinary experts though may have to scratch their heads over that one.
Early Books and Manuscripts Curator, our colleague Bill Stoneman, was the first person to bring Eccles cakes to Houghton Library, back in 2003, for a tea party celebrating the arrival of the Hyde collection at Harvard. So we imposed upon him to relive the experience and introduce a little flavor of the Great British Bake Off as we went head-to-head on Eccles cakes—the veteran versus the rookies. We made do without the judges though and deemed all to be winners. However, if Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood ever wish to weigh in, we’d happily submit to their scrutiny, and yes, make the puff from scratch.
This post contributed by Emilie Hardman and Emily Walhout, with thanks also to our cake-baking teammate, Heather Cole.