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Marzipan and Eccles cakes

I have made a list of topics to write a post on - currently mostly with a Christmassy bent even though Christmas is now done and dusted thank goodness. Apart from taking down the decorations before twelfth night that is or 2021 will be worse than 2020. Well if you believe in the bad luck theory anyway.

So I had marzipan on my list. It has popped into my head a few times of late for various reasons, so I thought I would do a post on marzipan. And then, whilst I was checking out the turkey curry thing I came across a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi called Christmas pudding Eccles cakes with marzipan. So that's my real basis for a mix that I initially thought of as weird, but now am beginning to think is actually very Christmassy. The marzipan is more Christmassy than the Eccles cakes so let's start with that.

Marzipan seems to have disappeared somewhat these days, although I recently bought some ready made marzipan when I made those disastrous puff pastry fruit turnover kind of things. Some of the turnovers included marzipan, some didn't. And I have to say that those with the marzipan were cloyingly sweet. Too much.

And yet when I was a child I loved marzipan. I think there were basically three ways in which we encountered marzipan back then - Christmas (and birthday) cakes, Battenberg cake and marzipan fruits.

My mother made her own Christmas cake long before Christmas I think. Or maybe that was the Christmas pudding. Anyway it was a dark fruit cake. This was covered with marzipan, which I think she also made herself. The whole was covered with Royal icing and decorated with a bought little Father Christmas and snowman and some Christmas trees. The icing was whipped up into what Nigel Slater so aptly describes as 'stormy waves of icing'. This was probably because it was just too difficult to make it smooth. The icing then set solid. Our cakes would have looked something like the one on the right. The one on the left is from Mary Berry and I chose that picture to show the three layers.

"Surely jaw-shattering white icing and a green bristle fir tree is as essential to the whole camp show as hanging baubles from the tree and making everyone pull a cracker. Yes, it's naff, but so what." Nigel Slater

When I was looking for quotes about Christmas cakes I was amused to find several who said that people generally peeled off the marzipan or the icing and left the cake. Because that sort of happened in our house.

"The chances of finding anyone who will eat all three layers of a Christmas cake is about as likely as finding an entire family that appreciates Eminem." Nigel Slater

Marzipan peels off in a very satisfactory way. And Nigel is right - the icing was pretty jaw shattering, but I did like it. Well it's pure sugar isn't it? And as for peeling the marzipan off, that was what was so appealing about Battenberg cake - the cake itself was really uninteresting. Much less interesting than the Christmas cake - which I really quite liked.

Another time for Battenberg cake.

Then there are the marzipan fruits. I don't think we ever made these ourselves, but it is indeed quite possible. After all it was mostly just a matter of shaping and colouring the marzipan. But you could also buy them in boxes and I think these may well have been one of the treats that came with the P&O Christmas hamper that we used to get. They would have been smaller than those shown here though. And maybe we put a few of these on the Christmas cake? Help me out sister dear?

So where does marzipan come from? Well:

"The origins of marzipan are unclear; there is a dispute between Persia, Hungary and Germany who all lay claim to the invention of a paste of sugar and almonds. The origins of the name are even more bizarre; some contenders being a Burmese city, a military commander and the ‘bread of March’. Great British Chefs

Actually the origins are even more unclear with various Baltic States, Turkey and other Middle-eastern countries laying claim, maybe even China. And the Wikipedia rundown on the etymology of the word is hilariously all over the place - from marchpane (meaning March bread), to that Burmese city. Suffice to say that it's old. I somehow associate marzipan with medieval and later banquets and feasts but it probably goes back even further. After all it's basically just a doughy paste made with almonds, sugar, and egg. The biggest argument seems to be about the proportion of sugar to ground almonds - 50/50 perhaps, and whether you have a whole egg or just an egg white. Simple to make though.

So what about Eccles cakes - which are not a Christmas thing, and do not have marzipan in them, but which really to my mind are a sort of mince pie?

Technically speaking they are a flattish pastry pie, filled with currants. They come from the town of Eccles - now subsumed into greater Manchester where they were first sold by one James Birch back in 1793. It is thought, however that they date back much further than this as the Puritans of the early 17th century tried to ban them as being frivolous and indulgent:

"Oliver Cromwell himself made a public example of the deviant pastries by instigating an act of Parliament that threatened imprisonment for anyone found eating an Eccles cake." The Daring Gourmet

There are similar pies made in Chorley and Blackburn but they have been largely forgotten except by the inhabitants of those two other Lancashire towns. I wonder why Lancashire? Were currants especially prevalent there? As far as I can make out the Eccles cake is made from flaky pastry - although there are some who would use puff pastry. I think they are considered almost unanimously as heretics, because the Chorley equivalent is made with puff pastry. The definition of the filling is a little looser but currants seem to be the dominant item. One writer said it just has to be currants - raisins, for example, are too sweet. Sugar is sprinkled on top, and slits are made so that the steam escapes and the filling oozes through. I did see one person saying that the slits are traditionally in a chess board pattern but that was the only place I saw that and I certainly never saw any pictures demonstrating this. Felicity Cloake does her usual analysis of the various alternatives, Delia Smith has a fairly standard version but really I think The Daring Gourmet probably has the most authentic and informative recipe and post on the subject.

Delia's (in the middle) look the least appetising of the bunch I have to say. And did I mention that, as demonstrated by Felicity Cloake's effort (on the left) they are traditionally served with Lancashire cheese which is a crumbly cheese. Mind you I think Felicity Cloake preferred Cheddar so that may well be Cheddar on her plate.

Many cooks added other dried fruits, fruit rind, spices nuts, and even alcohol, so why not just do a shortcut and make it with mincemeat thought I? So I did a search and found a few recipes and these, from Frugal Feeding look pretty nice. They also heretically use puff pastry and to be fair the author calls them Eccles cake mince pies rather than pure Eccles cakes. Easy peasy though:

"Eccles cake mince pies couldn’t be easier to make. Simply cut a few circles out, fill them generously with mincemeat, seal with egg, pat down and slice; a whole batch can be ready to eat in under 30 minutes." Frugal Feeding

Then there are those who really meddle with the 'authentic' recipe, like my original starting point - Yotam Ottolenghi's Christmas pudding Eccles cakes with marzipan. Not only does he include the marzipan which sort of comes from left of field, but he also uses leftover Christmas pudding (or maybe those leftover bits of Christmas cake that have had the marzipan and icing nibbled off). However, he's not alone in having thought of the marzipan. BBC Good food has a recipe too.

Then lots of chefs play with the idea and put all sorts of other things in the filling whilst keeping the general shape, the slits and the sugar on top. They generally use puff pastry too. Ottolenghi himself has another version which he calls Sort of Eccles cakes, which includes cranberries, walnuts, apricot jam and chocolate in the filling - pretty Christmassy but not very Eccles. And Jamie Oliver messes with the concept too by including ginger, a very wide range of mixed dried fruits and some apple. Felicity Cloake gives a good run down of other more extreme versions.

Growing up we didn't really do Eccles cakes, although I was dimly aware of them somehow. Maybe we bought some from the shop every now and then. Well they are a northern thing and I'm a southerner. I could consider something along the same lines though with my half jar of mincemeat.

So there you go - two completely separate English things - well the marzipan isn't English in origin but the English certainly use it in very specific ways - that can come together through chefs experimenting and searching for the ever new pairing that will blow your mind. Probably not blow your mind in this case, but give pleasure anyway. As long as you don't buy the marzipan ready-made. They were all agreed on that.

Oh and one last little thing from Stephanie Alexander - Rich marzipan dates. Yes they would be rich.

"Stuff stoned dates with marzipan mixed with reconstituted chopped dried fruit, chopped nuts and grated bittersweet chocolate. Serve with coffee as an alternative dessert."

I think the picture is not quite the above - just marzipan rather than Stephanie's luxury additions I think, but they sure look exotic and very, very rich. Which is what Christmas is all about isn't it? Sheer indulgence. Like Easter - and Easter is odd because that should really be a time of doom and gloom and sorrow.



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