As early as 1818 these small, flat raisin filled cakes were being gobbled up all over the UK and even as far as the West Indies having supposedly originated in James Birch’s shop on the corner of Vicarage Road in Eccles (now a suburb of Manchester). The novelist Arnold Bennett (who may have had something to do with a certain omelette but I’ll save that for another time), once called this shop “the most romantic in the world”, unfortunately it has since been demolished, but fear not because the Eccles cake lives on! I’ve been partial to the curranty creations since I was a little thing growing up in Dorset, nowadays I get my fix from St John where for a while I would think nothing of making them my breakfast en route to a weekly sewing course near Brick Lane (plenty of vitamins in those currants, make no mistake). If you want to attempt to make them yourself, this is the simple butter and lard flaky pastry recipe from that most talented of bakers, Dan Lepard, the man responsible for first making them for St John when it opened in 1994. And in true St John style, they are best eaten alongside a few chunks of creamy crumbly Lancashire cheese.
400g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
25g caster sugar
175g cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
50g lard (or more butter), cut into small cubes
1 medium egg, separated
100ml cold water
75ml cold milk
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons (or the best-quality lemon extract)
50g dark soft brown sugar
100g unsalted butter
A small cup of demerara sugar
1. Put the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl and add the butter and lard. Whisk the egg yolk with the water and milk, and mix with the flour to a firm dough. Wrap, chill for an hour, then, with a little flour, roll into a 2cm-thick rectangle. Fold in by thirds (like a letter), then re-roll to the same size and fold again. Wrap and chill for an hour. Repeat the double roll, fold and chill twice more.
2. Put the currants in a bowl, pour on 500ml boiling water and leave for five minutes. Drain thoroughly, then mix with the lemon, sugar, butter (if you melt it first it helps with mixing) and chill.
3. Roll the pastry to 2cm thick, cut in two and keep one piece chilled while you roll the other into a 0.25cm-thick rectangle and cut into six squares
4. Place a 50-60g ball of currants in the centre of each one, dampen the edges and bring together to seal
5. Flip it over, round the shape with your fingers, roll out slightly to flatten and place seam down on a baking tray lined with nonstick paper
6. Repeat with the other pastry and filling.
7. Brush with beaten egg white, sprinkle with sugar, slash the tops and bake at 200C (180C fan-assisted)/390F/gas mark 6 for about 30 minutes.