How to make traditional Eccles cakes

These traditional treats are the perfect way to road test your home-made (or shop-bought) mincemeat

Eccles cakes
You'll have plenty of mincemeat leftover after making these traditional Lancashire pastries  Credit: Andrew Twort and Annie Hudson

Despite being a huge fan of the band Wizzard at the age of 12, even I could see an inbuilt problem with wishing it could be Christmas every day. As the song of that name will be filling the airwaves for the next six weeks, I thought I would seek the views of my son Stan, who is seven and the biggest fan of Christmas you could hope to meet. Even he was sceptical: “It would kind of ruin it, because it’s supposed to be a treat.” Wise words.

However, this is the weekend when I start to take the impending spectre of Christmas seriously.

For those of us who cook, there are some jobs that have to be done well in advance and although I think I may have jumped the gun this year and gone off a week early because of the second lockdown, at least the festive food stands to benefit.

One of the jobs I have done so far is getting ready for the Christmas pudding and mince pies. The dried fruit is in a bowl, slowly soaking up some brandy, sherry and port.

I checked to see if I had any pudding basins, and of course I didn’t. If anybody can tell me where they get to every year, I would be really grateful.

With the pudding basins bought and the pie tins dug out, cleaned and oiled, I thought I should check my recipe for Christmas pudding and mince pies. The dried fruit I have soaking will be used for both.

I also realised that I had rather a lot of clementines in my fridge. As I was unlikely to eat them all, I boiled several whole for about one and a half hours, and then puréed them, skins and all. This idea comes from Claudia Roden’s famous orange and almond cake. My partner, Emma, regularly makes this cake, and the orange creates a really delicious, citrusy moistness, while helping to bind and bulk out the dish. I thought that this year, instead of baking a couple of large Bramley apples and using the puréed fruit in my mincemeat, I would use a clementine purée instead.

It will act as the binding for my mincemeat, as well as helping to moisten and fill out the Christmas pudding, while adding a lovely citrus background to the flavour.

To test my new mincemeat recipe, I took inspiration from a town where, in a sense, it really is Christmas every day: Eccles in Lancashire. I say this because it is home to the Eccles cake, which no amount of convincing will tell me is very different from a mince pie. I happened to have a sheet of all-butter puff pastry in the fridge, which I got from the supermarket, and so I thought I would have a go at making them. The results were delicious, although in the version of the recipe I give below, I’m using shop-bought mincemeat, as I don’t think most of us are ready with our own mincemeat yet. (If you are, so much the better.)

I was aided by the fact that one of my chefs used to work at the legendary St John, a restaurant that led the revival of the Eccles cake’s fortunes in the South. They serve them with a slice of Lancashire cheese, which I urge you to try, as it works very well.

My chef has made thousands of Eccles cakes in his career, and his main advice is to chill the filling until it is really cold so that it holds its shape while you wrap the pastry around it.

His other tip was that you put three slashes in the top of the pastry, “one for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Ghost”. I am not sure of the reason for this, but there does seem to be a religious dimension to the story of the famous cakes.

Last year, I said that Christmas began for me when I ate my first mince pie. But if you want to jump the gun and have an early festive treat, then give these a try.

Just tell any passing seven-year-olds that you are merely testing your mince pie filling, and not trying to have Christmas every day.