Mince pies and Fergus Henderson’s Eccles cakes
A little more than a month ago, on the other side of the world, the inimitable St. JOHN restaurant celebrated its 25th anniversary. There are few restaurants that have had their logo copied more or their influence reach further than London’s St. JOHN. And while Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver have been famous for their bone marrow dish and their nose-to-tail eating philosophy, one of the stars and the stayers on their menu is the humble Eccles cake.
Now down here, in the Antipodes, some of us really don’t care about the history and form of the Eccles cake. But as Christmas lurches towards us at a bone-shattering pace, I thought it timely to “compare the pair” – the Eccles cake versus the mince tart. Before I argue between the two, there are a couple of references to point out. Eccles cakes originated in the village of Eccles in Lancashire, and are best served with a Lancashire cheese (although I find a good English cheddar just as satisfactory). Mince pies can be traced back to the 13th-century crusaders and, as the name would suggest, were filled with meat, dried fruit, spices and suet. They were a long way from what is on offer today, heading in a savoury rather than sickly sweet direction.
Eccles cakes are definitely easier to make. They require a simple filling, a rolled-out sheet of good butter puff pastry, a little assembly and then you are good to go.
Mince pies, however, require the fruit mince to be made first. It’s a much more complex procedure, especially as I insist on putting my fruit mince through an actual mincer, though a food processor also works, as long as you don’t puree the fruit into an unsightly mess. Once made, the mince will keep in a sealed jar in a dark cupboard for years, especially if you cover the disturbed top with a little more cognac each year. I like to make mine with an unsweetened short pastry, simply because I am not a fan of the over-sweet variety. And I make them in a classic patty pan tin so the ratio of filling to pastry is just right. But, just like the Eccles cakes, I enjoy them with cheese.
Is there one I prefer? Yes, the Eccles cake – as something that can be eaten at any time of the year. But at Christmas, I will always drag out my fruit mince and make my mince pies. It’s the traditionalist in me, and it makes me happy to finish Christmas Day with the simplicity of good cheddar and good mince pies.
– 1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and grated
– 250g raisins
– 250g sultanas
– 250g currants
– 125g mixed peel
– grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
– 190g brown sugar
– 1 tbsp golden syrup
– 1 tsp grated nutmeg
– 1 tsp ground cinnamon
– 1 tsp mixed spice
– ½ tsp table salt
– 100g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
– 1½ tbsp cognac
To make the fruit mince, combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer to a food processor in small batches and process until the mixture resembles a coarse paste. Spoon into sterilised jars and store in a cool, dark cupboard until needed. The mince will keep for years, especially if you top it up with a little brandy each year.
Pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry)
– 240g plain flour
– pinch salt
– 180g unsalted butter, cubed
– ¼ cup cold mineral water
– 1 egg, whisked with 1 tbsp water and a pinch of salt to make an egg wash
– 4 tbsp raw sugar mixed with 1 tsp ground cinnamon
To make the pastry, sieve the flour and salt. Chop the unsalted butter through the flour. Make a well in the centre and add the mineral water. Carefully bring in the flour mixture from the outside until the dough comes roughly together. Push the dough outwards with the palm of your hand to roughly blend the butter – you should be able to see large streaks of butter in the dough. Shape into two discs and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate for one hour.
Roll out the pastry to a thickness of about three millimetres and cut out bases and tops to fit your preferred mince pie tins. Chill the pastry for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 210ºC.
Line the tart cases with pastry, add a spoonful of fruit mince, put on the pastry top and seal the edges. Brush with a little egg wash and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar.
Cook for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Fergus Henderson’s Eccles cakes
– 50g unsalted butter
– 110g dark brown sugar
– 220g currants
– 1 tsp ground allspice
– 1 tsp ground nutmeg
– 500g excellent butter puff pastry roll
– 3 egg whites, beaten with a fork
– shallow bowl of castor sugar
Melt the butter and sugar together, then add them to the dry ingredients. Mix well and then leave to cool before using.
Unroll the puff pastry onto a floured work surface and cut circles about nine centimetres in diameter. Spoon a blob of your currant mix into the centre of the disc and pull up the sides of the pastry to cover the filling. Seal it with your fingers, then turn over and slash the top three times (for the Holy Trinity). Paint the top with the egg white, then dip it in the sugar.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes in a hot to medium oven; keep an eye on them so they don’t burn. They can be eaten hot or cold.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "A currant affair". Subscribe here.