O, the Eccles Cake. Imagine noticing it for the first time, hidden off to the side of the display case at some generic local bakery (unthinkable that it could take pride of place): you might suspect it to be an unfortunate oddity conjured up by an idiosyncratic proprietor. But this dry, dense, often shriveled-looking round, studded with knobs of what might be prune, can be found flaking its eczemic flakiness in bakeries across our land Canada. Perhaps that is because, against tall odds, the Eccles Cake is a paragon of deliciousness.
Named after its English birthplace, to stereotyping minds perhaps the first bad sign, the Eccles Cake embodies many of the questionable attributes of England’s pastry. For instance, it often has an elemental funk, the same that lurked its way into my sense memory via the mince tarts purveyed by my Anglo grandparents at Christmastime. No doubt that’s because, ideally, there is as much suet involved in an Eccles Cake, in pastry, filling or both, as there is in a mince tart. It’s the key ingredient, giving the crust its strange mixture of pasty density and dry, shard-like flake, as well as that vaguely gamey aftertaste set off by the pronounced salty tang. Did you know that suet is especially made from the hard fat found round the kidneys and in the loins of cattle or mutton? It’s true. Grind coarsely, and it’s ready to use.
And there is little about the Eccles Cake to ornament those grim depths: just a glaze of plain coarse sugar, so opposed to excess that one suspects Puritan involvement. Here (at last?) is a dessert that, rather than promising to transport the eater into bliss, instead appears intent to extinguish any remnants of the sin of tastiness once and for all. Just the sight of it, of greasy dark fruit half-hidden by a plain pocked crust, has inspired centuries of children to refer to Eccles Cakes, “though always with affection… as ‘dead fly pies.’” So says no lesser authority than the City Council of Salford, which has annexed Eccles, along with its Cakes, since James Birch sold his first in 1793.
Verily, this Eccles Cake sounds as unpromising as it looks. But you will discover that those prunes are actually currants. Spiced currants! And as in many other delicious foods, like honey-roasted nuts and kettle corn, or the current fads of fleur de sel caramels and bacon truffles, salty and sweet resonate pleasantly. In the right hands the crust, well-caramelized, has a rich, golden, hearty taste. Better still, even in the wrong hands an Eccles Cake is often excellent. It’s crisp and chewy all at once, a riot of textures and densities and flavours, fitting for a dessert that might also include some meat. It has thus become for me one of those rare items that’s safe to order almost anywhere, and be not only not disappointed, but downright pleased, and satisfied.
That’s not to say that the Eccles Cake doesn’t have its enemies. As my friend Letitia said, after noting hers was “filled with something gross like dates. I didn’t even finish it.” Still, next time you notice the Eccles Cake relegated to a corner of the case, why not give it a try? I’m sure you’ll agree it’s there for a reason.
A few Eccles Cake recommendations:
Brick Street Bakery. 55 Mill Street, Toronto, ON. Claiming the Eccles Cake as one of their signature items (Chowhound-lauded as the best in the city), Brick Street turns out a plump and well-stuffed pie.
Stuart’s Bakery. Granville Island Public Market, Vancouver, BC. A foot-wide, pancake-thin circle of chewy-crisp pastry, interrupted by 10 or 12 small fruits of unknown repute, the Stuart’s Eccles Cake is both toothsome and addictive.
Blue Ridge Meats. 5 Hurontario Street, Collingwood, ON. This butcher shop’s wares include a small selection of meat pies and other pastries, including a highly typical Eccles Cake.
Black Diamond Bakery and Coffee Shop. 119 Centre Avenue West, Black Diamond, AB. Baked by a Dane who spells it Eckles, and who rolls the pastry once again after it’s stuffed. The result is a mixture of plump and flat styles.
Maritime Pasty Company. Saturdays at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. 1209 Marginal Road, Halifax, NS. Featuring a mixture of fruits amended with caramel in a buttery puff pastry shell, this is a rather decadent, modern gloss on the traditional English formula.