Yes, I’ll admit it – I’m a bit of an Anglophile. And, with the holidays just around the corner, I don’t simply dream of a white Christmas, but a Dickensian one. I imagine a holiday with Victorian carolers strolling snow-covered cobbled streets, a cozy Cotswold cottage lit with candles and scented with crackling roast goose and steamy figgy pudding, pulling Christmas crackers with family and friends around the table, and nibbling treats like these very British Eccles cakes.
The Eccles cake may have been created about 20 years before Dickens was even born, yet these are just the type of sweetmeat I imagine gracing Mr. Fezziwig’s overladen Christmas Eve party table.
An Eccles cake is a small, heavily spiced pastry filled with currants and candied orange peel wrapped in a flaky (rough puff) pastry. The origins can be traced to the town of Eccles, formerly within the Lancashire boundary, but now a suburb of Manchester. Weights are in grams, nodding to their British origin.
Stir together all filling ingredients in a small bowl. Microwave for 45 seconds to 1 minute until butter is melted. Cover and set aside for the flavors to meld and currants to soften. Refrigerate. Once cold, the filling should bind together without extra liquid. Drain if necessary.
Pulse flour, salt and butter in a food processor until butter pieces are pea-sized. Gradually pulse in about 100-125ml cold water until mixture comes together into a dough. Do not overwork.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle three times as long as it is wide. Fold the top third down into the middle, then the bottom third up over the top, then rotate the pastry 90 degrees so the fold is now vertical. Roll out again and repeat then wrap in cling-wrap and chill for 20 minutes. Repeat the rolling, folding, rotating, rolling and folding one more time. Chill for an hour.
Roll the pastry out on a lightly floured work surface a little thicker than 1/8th of an inch, then cut out rounds about 3 ½ inches wide. Put a half-tablespoon of filling in the center of each, then dampen the edges of the circle and bring the edges into the middle, pinching together to seal well. Put on a baking tray smooth side up, and squash slightly until flattened. Repeat with the rest and chill for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Remove pastries from refrigerator, brush with egg white and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Cut three slashes in the top of each and bake for about 20-25 minutes until golden and well-risen. Allow to cool before eating – the filling will be hot.
Me: “What are some of your favorite things to eat?”
Him: “I dunno, I like lots of things…I think I told you, Chocolate soufflé.”
Me: “Yeah, but it’s difficult to keep and photograph a soufflé without it collapsing. It’s more of an à la minute dessert. What about nuts? Do you like nuts?”
Him: “Sure, I like nuts. What about a tart – a fruit tart?”
Me: “Hmmm…maybe. I could bake a tart with autumn fruit…”
We had “the talk.” That’s the talk where I explain baking for him doesn’t mean he’s earmarked for fathering my children. A cake doesn’t mean I want him to put a ring on it. Sometimes an éclair is just an éclair. I bake – it’s what I do. I bake for people I like – it makes me happy. It’s the perk of knowing me – don’t overthink it; enjoy it.
I decided on this impressive looking yet relatively simple autumn apple and dried cherry tart flavored with warming Chinese 5-spice – an ideal holiday dessert to provide the wow-factor to any table. Plus, it’s a good classic dessert when baking for a guy for the first time – who doesn’t like apples and buttery pastry?
Slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated French Apple Tart. This easy no-roll, no-chill crust is my go-to crust for many types of tarts.
1 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour
5 Tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 oz. tart dried cherries, coarsely chopped
10 Golden Delicious apples (about 5 lbs.), peeled and cored
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 Tablespoon water
½ cup apricot preserves
¾ teaspoon Chinese 5-spice
¼ teaspoon salt
To make the crust, adjust 1 oven rack to the lowest position and the second rack about 5” from the broiler element. Heat oven to 350⁰ F. Stir together flour, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Add melted butter and stir until dough forms. Press dough smoothly and evenly on the bottom and up the sides of a 9” tart pan. Place pan on a wire rack set on a baking sheet and bake on lowest rack until golden brown, 30-35 minutes. Set aside.
For the filling, cover the dried cherries with boiling water and soften until ready to use. Cut 5 apples into quarters and each quarter into 4 slices (each apple should yield 16 slices). Melt 1 Tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add apple slices, and water and stir to combine. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally until apples begin to turn translucent and slightly pliable, about 5 minutes. Spread apples on a plate in a single layer to cool. Pour any accumulated liquid from the skillet.
While the apples cook, microwave apricot preserves until fluid, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Strain 3 Tablespoons of preserves through a small mesh strainer and set aside for step 7.
Cut remaining apples into ½” cubes. Melt remaining 2 Tablespoons butter in skillet. Add drained cherries, remaining un-strained apricot preserves, cubed apples, Chinese 5-spice and salt to skillet. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally until apples are soft, about 10 minutes. Mash apples to puree with a fork or potato masher. Continue to cook, uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated and puree is reduced to about 2 cups, about 5 minutes.
Transfer puree to tart shell and smooth. Arrange apple slices, tightly overlapping in concentric circles with outside curve of slices pointing up (see photo above). Bake tart, still on wire rack in baking sheet, on lowest rack for about 30 minutes. Remove tart from oven and heat broiler.
While broiler heats, warm reserved strained preserves in microwave until fluid, about 30 seconds. Brush over apples, avoiding tart crust. Broil tart, checking every 30 seconds, and moving if necessary until apples are caramelized, about 2 minutes total. Let tart cool for 1 ½ hours before removing ring and slicing.
Our search for Clarity occasionally demands us to set aside to-do lists in favor of prayer books. It inters us within a temple of quiet solitude, away from the dazzle of worldliness, insisting on reflection. Our weaving of elaborate plans is replaced by solemn contemplation. When I ache with this azan in my ear, I bow at my kitchen’s altar for answers often found within the merging of butter, sugar and flour.
Flavored with candied orange and anise, these cookies are a nod to the French sweet bread, gibassier
– 3/4 cup sugar
– 8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
– 2 teaspoons orange flower water
– 3 eggs
– 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
– ½ cup almond flour
– 2 teaspoons baking powder
– ¼ teaspoon salt
– 1/3 cup candied orange peel, finely chopped
– 1 teaspoon anise seeds, toasted and slightly crushed
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment and spray with cooking spray.
In a stand mixer, beat sugar and butter until pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add extract and beat well.
Add flour, almond flour, baking powder and salt and mix until blended. Add candied orange peel and anise and mix until just combined.
Shape dough into two rolls the length of the sheet pan. Flatten each to 3” wide. Bake 20-25 minutes until set and barely beginning to brown. Cool 10 minutes. Cut rolls ½” thick across into 18 biscotti each. 5. Arrange biscotti on their sides on sheet pan and bake 8-10 minutes. Turn cookies over and bake an additional 5 minutes. Bake cookies until dry and crispy, but not brown. I enjoy these treats dipped in a cappuccino or glass of milk.