Centre: Mum and me. Left and right: Two British pastries we sleuthed together
Several years ago, my mother and I were in the hallway at her small flat on Steeles Rd. in NW London (UK) about to go out for a bit of food shopping. I was visiting her, as I did once or twice a year, from my home in Toronto, Canada.
She was wearing a plain navy blue coat with a hood. I was wearing leopard.
She had her head to her one side and asked me a question coyly, seeking my approval. “Do you like my new coat? I bought it at Aquascutum.” I had been waiting to use the brilliant line from a “Roseanne” episode I’d stored in my memory for a long time – and this was the perfect moment. I answered: “Mum, I can’t believe I spewed forth from your loins.”
We both laughed.
We were different – like chalk and cheese. My mother dressed in classic clothes – she shopped at Aquascutum and Viyella. I prefer vintage garb like – well, leopard, velvet and lace. She was a scientist and a high school biology teacher. I’m creative – I write and speak about food for a living. She spoke five languages fluently. She was refined, a bookworm and a culture vulture. I only read memoirs and walk out of theatres regularly.
Happier news – we bonded over cooking. My mum was a stellar cook. She learned it as a young woman from an early edition from the Joy of Cooking – I still have it, tattered and torn. Her favourite savoury dishes were Beef Stroganoff, Rouladen, Wiener Schnitzel, Sweet and Sour Pork, Salmon Coulibiac and Roast Duck. She was an expert at European baked desserts. Her trademark was Linzertorte.
I made peace with my mum four years before she died. She was a Holocaust refugee. She escaped from Latvia when she was 16. She never talked about it. At last, she told her story to me. In my 60s, I had compassion – and love. Please read, watch and listen to my multi-media page called Mum and Me.
My mother loved food sleuthing with me. We had several adventures in search of traditional British foods. We stayed overnight in Manchester and took a train to the nearby town of Eccles to sleuth the Eccles Cake – a toothsome flaky pastry filled with dried fruit. We both travelled to Bakewell in the scenic Peak District only to find a bitterly contested debate over the ownership of original recipe for the Bakewell Tart.
For Torontonians, both the Eccles Cakes and mini-Bakewell Tarts are available at the Brick Street Bakery in the Distillery District. Tasty Eccles Cakes are available at the downtown landmark Harbord Bakery.
These two articles appeared in the Toronto Star where I was the food editor/columnist for 18 years until I resigned in 2007. The first was published in September, 2002; the second in September, 2003.
Again, I dedicate this to my brilliant, beautiful, beloved, blue-eyed mum Ruth (Nisse) Schachter.
Me, Mum and the Eccles Caper
“The Eccles cake is a small round cake made of buttery, flaky pastry with a filling of currants. It takes its name from Eccles, a town in Greater Manchester (a notable baking area), and was reputedly invented by the cookery writer Elizabeth Raffald (1733-81), who spent most of her working life in Manchester.” – A Gourmet’s Guide (Oxford University Press) by John Ayto
MANCHESTER, Lancashire: I looked around for my mother.
She’d stopped dead in her tracks behind me a few steps from the checkout counter at the giant Marks & Spencer’s in downtown Manchester where we’d just made our purchase: one freshly baked Eccles Cake.
Holding that small pastry in one hand and letting a few stray currants drop to the ground, my diminutive, silver-haired Mum fixed her baby blues on me and announced, complete with pregnant pause: “You know dear, I think this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
For some reason, this grandiose statement made us break into uncontrollable giggles. It was a wonderful moment. We had bonded over my latest culinary mission: the search for the ultimate Eccles Cake.
It all began at the start of my two-week visit to the U.K. in August. While planning a couple of expeditions in the living room of Mum’s North London home, I had expressed a wish to visit Manchester, a place where neither of us had been.
That formerly bleak industrial town known for its once dark Satanic mills, the musical Gallagher brothers, laddism and a popular football team, has, I’d heard, experienced a recent facelift and, more important, become a haven for foodies and budding chefs. (This was later validated by an amazing dinner we had at Sam’s Chop House and lunch at The Lowry museum’s fabulous restaurant.)
Ever the avid collector of newspaper clippings, my Mum pulled out a two-page spread she’d culled from The Observer. This guide to Manchester included tips on where to stay (we took their advice and spent a wondrous night at the centrally located Malmaison), how to catch a glimpse of Victoria and David Beckham at tony boutiques Geese and Oyster, and the following item.
Its words were irresistible: “For food, head for Eccles, find the Old Bradburn Bakery (now Hampsons) where you can buy Manchester’s answer to Sachertorte – the Eccles Cake.”
Marks & Sparks became the first stop on our cake-sleuthing itinerary. It was recommended for this mission by a young woman at Manchester’s downtown tourist information office. ‘Twas she who told us the Eccles Cake’s nickname is “dead fly pie” because of its currant filling.
Incidentally, that M & S Eccles Cake – my Mum’s epiphany when it comes to this confection – was well worth the $2 and turned out to be the best of many sampled.
Next, it was on to the town of Eccles. It’s the last stop on the GO-style train that travels to several small towns and villages on Manchester’s outskirts, including Salford, home to the famous gallery displaying the works of the late local artist L.S. Lowry.
Newspaper clipping in hand and mother in tow, I headed to the tiny main street of Eccles in search of Hampsons bakery. There it was, a small, sanitized outlet of a Lancashire chain specializing in all things pie. Meat pies, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties and fruit pies filled its shelves. And, yes, they had Eccles Cakes – but a rather dry, tasteless specimen, Mum and I mused as we each munched on one, compared with the flaky, flavour-packed version from M & S.
Freshness is key, I soon discovered, when it comes to this dessert. In fact, I’ll say it now: A fresh Eccles Cake is a beautiful thing. A stale one is to be avoided.
Noting that The Observer’s comparison with the lofty Sachertorte was ringing a tad hollow, I decided to scour the town of Eccles for a better representative of the pastry that bears its name. “You could try the supermarket Morrison’s right next to the railway tracks, “an elderly woman said when pressed for info. Sure enough, this spacious supermarket’s bakery department, testimony to the British people’s sweet tooth, was a dessert sleuth’s nirvana.
It yielded three brands of jam roly-poly, Bakewell Tarts in five flavours, all manner of puddings from sticky toffee to spotted dick and – you guessed – four brands of Eccles Cakes.
Leaving a trail of currants, Mum and I nibbled our way through all of them. The best by far, made in nearby Wigan by Lowthers, came in a package off our small pastries and cost a mere $2.
Back in London, I was having lunch with British food writer Nigel Slater later that week when talk turned to my favourite topic. “You have to try the Eccles Cake at St. John restaurant, ” he insisted. The next day, Mum and I found ourselves perusing the menu at this elegantly simple but pricey eatery near Smithfield Market and dedicated to foods British in general and things offal in particular.
On which matter, a word of advice: Do not order, as poor Mum did, the Stinking Bishop and Potatoes, a large mound of soft, smelly cheese with a side dish of boiled fingerling potatoes. I cannot speak for Rolled Pig’s Spleen and Bacon, Deep-Fried Sand Eels or Duck Neck with Green Beans.
However, the Eccles Cake, served with a large slice of tangy Lancashire cheese, is top-notch: a biggish, round pocket of crisp puff pastry encasing a deeply delicious currant mixture spiked with lemon juice and allspice. At $3 a pop, the cakes are available to take home from the restaurant’s bakery.
Still on a happy note, I discovered on my return to Toronto that my Eccles Cake fix is close at hand. Harbord Bakery near Spadina Ave. has been making a fine rendition for more than 50 years. Just keep in mind my freshness warning and that the bakery makes them at the end of the week.
By the way, my mother’s last words to me as I approached the mini-cab en route to Heathrow were, “I think I’ll heat up that last Eccles Cake, dear, and have it with a cup of tea.”
You, too, can savour this sweet experience with the help of my recipe. Here it is – and darned good, too, if I say so myself.
If you’re a pastry chef or want to be a hero, you can make the dough. However, Tenderflake’s perfectly good frozen rendition is sold in most supermarkets. The pastry chef at St. John restaurant lets the currant mixture sit overnight, once cooked, to let flavours mellow.
1 tsp butter
1½ cups currants
⅓ cup chopped mixed candied peel
1 tsp each: ground nutmeg, ground allspice, ground ginger
Juice of ½ lemon
397 g package frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Fruit sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 425F.
In saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Turn off heat, add currants, peel, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and lemon juice. Stir to combine.
Roll pastry to about ⅛-inch thickness on floured surface. Using a drinking glass, cut circles 3 to 4 inches in diameter to make about 20.
Place rounded tablespoon of currant mixture in middle of half of pastry circles and moisten edges of each with water. Place remaining circles on top, crimping edges to seal. Brush tops with egg white. Dust generously with sugar. Using paring knife, cut two or three parallel slits on top of each.
Brush large baking sheet with water or line it with parchment paper. Place cakes on sheet. Bake about 15 minutes or until puffed and golden.
Makes 10 cakes.
I baked an 8-inch Bakewell Tart (recipe below) and it turned out well
Controversy over Sweet Turns Bitter
BAKEWELL, Derbyshire: “This is the home of the Bakewell pudding, ” replies the manager of the Rutlands Arms Hotel with mock reproach when asked where in town to find the best Bakewell Tart. Then, flashing me a wicked grin, she adds cheekily: “The tarts just live here.”
Oka-a-ay! Point taken. Lesson learned. One soon confirmed by other locals who insist the word “tart” does not apply to the original confection born many moons ago in this historic market town nestled at the heart of the Peak District National Park in a lush valley on the River Wye.
Bakewell is beloved and, at this time of year, besieged by two groups of people: backpacking, ruddy-cheeked hikers and comparatively pale-faced folks like moi motivated by that less wholesome attribute – a sweet tooth.
And it turns out I’ve just had my first taste of the culinary controversy to come. As I check out the few cobbled blocks where four busy, well-stocked bakeries specializing in Bakewell Pudding (and, yes, even the politically incorrect Bakewell Tart) sell their wares, I unearth a mouth-watering mystery.
For the second year in a row, I am accompanied by my trusty 80-year-old mum for this, our latest foray into Britain’s north country to check out the birthplace of a traditional sweet.
Last year, it was the tiny Lancashire town of Eccles: home to the currant-laden, flaky pastry called Eccles Cake. Sadly, the bakery from which it hails is long gone and it was left to the stalwart Marks & Sparks in nearby Manchester to serve up a delicious, definitive version.
In Bakewell, however, a couple of bakeries loudly proclaim they are originators of the Bakewell Pudding. In fact, so heated has the battle become over this claim to fame, owners of two local establishments recently wound up in court.
One was trained chef Marion Wright, who has operated Bloomers Original Bakewell Puddings since purchasing it 10 years ago.
It’s a sunny mid-morning when I sit down with her in the bakery’s coffee shop over cappuccino and a slice each of Bakewell Pudding and Tart to chew over this baking brouhaha.
She explains the difference between the two desserts. The pudding, which resembles a large, flat butter tart with pallid puff pastry as its base, is, she says, “filled with a sort of egg custard with ground almonds in it on a layer of strawberry or raspberry jam.” I find it less attractive than the much-maligned, tastier tart, which, says Wright, came into being some years after the pudding.
The tart has a regular pastry shell topped with a layer of jam and then filled with sponge cake. “It’s cheaper to make a sponge mixture than the custard, “she notes, “and you can use almond essence instead of ground almonds.”
The lawsuit was launched five years ago by owners of the nearby Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop. That bakery and Wright’s both claim to have a copy of the original recipe dating back to the 1860s.
It was handed over, so the story goes, by owners at the Rutland Arms Hotel, where the pudding came about when an inexperienced cook made a mistake in assembling a strawberry jam tart.
The court case won national attention in the British press but remains unresolved. “There were £50,000 in legal costs, which we split, ” Wright says wearily. “There’s no date on my recipe and they don’t have the technology to date it accurately. The Pudding Shop say they have a recipe but no one’s seen it.”
Later that day, I ponder all this as I savour a luscious wedge of deep-dish Bakewell Tart nearby at the recently opened Bakewell Tart Shop. Its rich, crunchy crust is filled with tangy jam and a lusciously sweet cake. Served warm and bathed in silky, warm custard, it tastes divine.
All this is still on my mind back in Toronto where I discover The Brick Street Bakery at 55 Mill St., which recently opened in the beautifully refurbished Distillery Historic District.
Here, owner Simon Silander proudly shows me his rendition of Bakewell Tart – a dark, rich dessert made with unblanched almonds – along with a slew of other British-inspired pies, cookies, bread and cakes.
Good as it is, the tart pales beside the bakery’s delectably sticky, currant-studded Somerset Lardy Cake.
Later that day, I’m on the phone to Mum. Looks like I’ve found our culinary mission for next summer!
I’ve combined elements from several recipes for this excellent version. Serve warm or at room temperature with warm custard, ice cream, whipped cream or thickened yogurt.
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup icing sugar
½ cup cold butter, cubed
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp water
¾ cup raspberry jam
½ cup butter, at room temperature
½ cup icing sugar
¼ tsp almond extract
1¼ cups ground almonds
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
⅓ cup peach, apple, apricot jelly or jam
1 tbsp lemon juice
½ cup icing sugar
For pastry, combine flour, icing sugar and salt in bowl. Using wire pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. (Or using food processor, combine dry ingredients, then cut in butter by pulsing several times.) Add yolks; mix lightly with fork. (In food processor, add yolks and pulse briefly.) Add water; gather into ball. Cover in plastic wrap; chill about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Reserve about one-eighth of pastry for lattice top. Roll pastry out to fit on the bottom and about halfway up sides of 8-inch round springform pan. Bake about 15 minutes or until pastry is barely golden around edges. Cool completely.
For filling, spread jam over bottom of pastry shell.
Use electric or hand mixer to beat butter and icing sugar together in bowl until light and smooth. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until fluffy. Add almond extract.
In small bowl, combine almonds, flour and baking powder. Stir into egg mixture until smooth. Pour into cooled pastry shell; spread evenly over jam layer.
Roll out reserved pastry between two sheets of plastic wrap to 8-inch circle. Remove top layer of plastic wrap. Using sharp knife, cut pastry into six strips. Working quickly, lay three strips over tart in one direction and three strips in opposite direction.
Return tart to oven. Bake about 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely.
For topping, place jelly in small bowl; warm in microwave about 60 seconds on high power OR heat jelly in small saucepan over low heat until melted. Pour over top of tart; smooth evenly with back of spoon.
In small bowl, combine lemon juice and icing sugar. Place mixture in piping bag or plastic bottle with squirt tip and make swirls or a cross-hatch design over top of tart.
Makes 8 servings.