Heston Blumenthal and Justin Gellatly’s Eccles Cake recipes go head to head. It’s our favourite chef versus Britain’s Best Baker.
Have a look at these bad boys:
Those, my dear friends, are Eccles Cakes from the St John Bakery. And they are absolutely out of this world good.
The Druid Street Arch that supplies St John’s London restaurants is open to the public on Saturday mornings. A couple of years ago at Frightfest I dragged my sorry arse out of bed at some ungodly hour (8.30am) to make the journey from Holborn to Bermondsey to sample these, along with the legendary doughnuts.
For me the best thing about St John was always the bread and pastry section, and that was largely the work of Justin Gellatly. He’s now set up his own independent venture, Bread Ahead, in Borough Market. He’s got a new book out as well, “Bread, Cake Doughnut and Pudding”, which you can pick up for an absolute bargain these days.
To confuse matters, though, we’ll be using his Eccles Cake recipe from the original St John Nose to Tail recipe book from 1999, but using the updated method described in 2007’s Beyond Nose to Tail. And of course pitting that recipe against Heston Blumenthal’s Eccles Cake recipe from Heston at Home. Still with us?
Surprisingly both Heston’s Eccles Cake recipe and the St John Eccles Cake recipe by Justin Gellatly are very similar. We’ve gone step by step, starting with Juston Gellatly’s Eccles Cake recipe from St John and then moving on to the Heston Blumenthal Eccles Cake recipe.
Step 1: St John’s Filling
Currants, of course, are the universal choice for an Eccles Cake filling. Justin Gellatly and St John add equal parts of mixed spice and pure nutmeg to flavour.
Butter, too, seems to be pretty ubiquitous. The St John Eccles Cake recipe asks you to melt dark brown sugar in a pan alongside that butter.
Once melted, stir in the currants and spices, then set aside to cool.
Congrats, that’s your Justin Gellatly / St John Eccles Cake recipe filling done.
Step 2: Heston’s Filling
Would it surprise you all to learn that Heston’s Eccles Cake recipe filling is twice as complicated and uses double the amount of butter? And that there’s an unexpected and weird ingredient involved?
Start off by combining the standard-issue currants with mixed spice only. And then some red wine vinegar!?!?
Let us explain on poor Heston’s behalf. You see, the Fat Duck chef seems lately to have gotten rather obsessed with the phrase “mouth-watering”. Vinegar, of course, makes your mouth water (as in increases saliva production, which enhances your ability to taste, which… blah blah blah. You get the point). Add to that Heston’s fondness for using a dash of vinegar to “cut through the richness”. Heston recipes tend to contain frankly daft amounts of butter, so there’s a lot of richness to cut through. So: vinegar.
Those daft amounts of butter need melting in a pan along with some golden caster sugar. Unlike Justin, who wants everything just melted, Heston’s Eccles Cake recipe specifies that the sugar and butter actually need to start bubbling.
Mix in the currants and spice and you should have your Heston Blumenthal Eccles Cake recipe filling ready, right? Wrong!
The mixture now needs to be divided into portions of exactly 25g each. And then frozen solid (or as solid as buttery sugar can freeze). This is not a recipe for the impatient.
Step 3: Pastry
At this stage both St John’s and Heston’s Eccles Cake recipes more or less converge and use the exact same method for the pastry.
Each asks you to use a 9cm ring cutter to make circles of pastry. We’re using pre-rolled pastry and I suspect you can see the crafty Christina Tosi-inspired technique we’ve use to make all our circles fit onto the one sheet.
Here are Heston’s Eccles Cakes:
And here are St John’s:
Wrap the pastry around the filling and roll it until its more-or-less a sealed ball.
As far as St John and Justin are concerned you can pop these in a 180°C oven right now. Heston, on the other hand, wants you to let them have a bit of rest and relaxation time in the freezer. A full hour, in fact. Even our oven isn’t that slow to warm up! (Note: we were a bit lazy and couldn’t be bothered waiting. Which turned out to be a huge mistake).
Step 4: Baking
Both sets of Eccles cakes can now go into the oven for anything in the 18 – 25 minute range. Egg wash first.
It does not seem unusual for them to start bubbling and spluttering messily. Heston’s Eccles Cake recipe, with its higher butter content filling, is particularly prone to this. Definitely make sure you leave them to cool for a good five to ten minutes before you put the more delicate parts of your mouth anywhere near them.
After extensive taste testing our panel came to a unanimous verdict. The preferred Eccles Cake recipe is: Neither. Or both. Erm…
Above pic: Left is St John. Right is Heston’s.
You see, they’ve both got their strong points. Heston’s Eccles Cake recipe results in a better texture, what with the loads of butter and properly chilled pastry. The St John Eccles Cake recipe has an overall better flavour, we guess thanks to that extra nutmeg and the rich, molasses-ey dark brown sugar.
One thing we can say for certain is that Heston’s mega-butter filling really does need setting in the freezer, along with the pastry, before baking. Ours was still warm and squidgy from being rolled into shape. At least this is what we’re highlighting as the cause of the soggy bottoms we suffered from. We certainly didn’t have that problem with the almost-identical Heston Mince Pie recipe from a few years back.
Extra criticisms? Well, currants are utterly horrible things. I’m a sultana or raisin man, always have been, always will be. Nowadays those charming jewel-like bags you get from Lidl. Currants are horribly dry, tough-skinned gritty little things. If you have to use them you ought to soak them in some manner of booze the night before. Brandy or rum would probably work best. Prune juice maybe?
We weren’t fond of the vinegar either, but we think there’s a specific reason for that. You see, Heston probably gets his own vinegars from artisan producers too posh for Harvey Nichols. That or the priciest bottle off the top shelf at Waitrose. We’re using a bottle of bog-standard supermarket stuff (Sainsburys in this instance) and the quality is right at the other end of the scale. By which we mean the bottom end of the scale. One of the extra “qualities” you’ll find at this price point is harshness. Cheap vinegar, be it cider, wine or balsamic, is just a lot harsher and rougher. Sadly this is one area where price really does matter. If expensive vinegars aren’t for you then consider reducing the amount by half.
Every person who tried an Eccles Cake agreed that the perfect Eccles Cake recipe would combine the sugar and spice of the St John recipe, with the butter and technique of the Heston Blumenthal Eccles Cake recipe. Oh, and you can get away with using just half the specified vinegar, the results should be “mouth-watering” enough without the full amount.
- Fully freeze the cakes before baking
- Soak the raisins in rum, brandy or juice the night before
- Replace the fruit with a more fun variety
- Use half the amount of vinegar
- Replace half the regular sugar with dark brown
- Add an extra pinch of nutmeg