Culinary history, especially relating to British cuisine, must pause and reflect on the advent of the Eccles cake, a flaky raisin pastry that is sometimes also called dead fly pie. Origins of this popular pastry date back to the mid or late 18th century, depending upon which version of the Eccles cake history you choose to believe. Some suggest the Eccles cake was really invented in Cheshire, and a recipe much like it exists in a cookbook published in 1769, written by Elizabeth Raffald. Others credit James Birch, a local Eccles shopkeeper for first selling the cakes in his corner shop on Vicarage Road.
Though disputes exist regarding exactly who invented the Eccles cake, there can be no argument on how popular these cakes became. Birch’s cakes sold quickly and there became high demand for these pastries. Birch was chary with his recipe, refusing to give it out, so recipes published for the cakes had to be reinvented by cookbook authors. Mrs. Raffald’s recipe differs slightly from the modern day interpretation. It contained a version of mincemeat surrounded by pastry.
Birch’s version also very likely contained brandy, and may have had raisins and apples. The cakes were soon popular exports, and many attested to their ability to “keep” — even when imported across the ocean to American settlers. This suggests that most Eccles cakes originally had alcohol, with an interior very similar to mincemeat, which would have helped preserve the cakes as exports to both America and the West Indies.
The modern Eccles cake is a combination of cooked currants or raisins, candied fruit or citron, butter, sugar and spices like nutmeg. Flaky pastry, which can vary from puff pastry to more typical piecrust pastry, is rolled out, and cut into circles. Each circle gets a dollop of the fruit mix, and then is folded up to produce a bun-like shape, which can be crimped. The pastries can then be brushed with a little egg wash, or sprinkled with sugar before they’re baked in the oven.
You’ll also find square, rectangular, and half moon versions. The most standard version often features several wide cuts in the top. This allows you to see the raisins or “flies,” which fill the interior of the pastry.
Sizes of the Eccles cake vary. Some recipes recommend a width of about four inches (approximately 10 centimeters) for each circle. This provides an easy to hold treat, though if you can bear it, do allow the cakes to cool before you eat them, since the filling will be very hot. Legions of Eccles cake fans can hardly wait for them to cool, and argue they are best eaten when still quite warm.