#431 Murrumbidgee Cake

I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for Jane Grigson – and therefore this blog – I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. Cooking and writing for a living was not what I had in mind when I started it; I just needed a way to practise writing for my PhD! I didn’t really know who Jane Grigson was, but I could see by the book English Food sat on my shelf, which someone else had bought me, that it was comprehensive and would be a challenge.

Jane Grigson died in 1992, but her voice and ethos certainly spoke to me loud and clear. Since her death, her influence is still strong for those in the know. But how do you get people not in the know to discover her? It’s certainly not by walking into a bookshop. I make a point of going into one and heading straight to the cookery section; only very rarely is there a Jane Grigson book to be found, yet there is often several by her contemporary Elizabeth David.
Jane and Sophie Grigson (Rex Features)

Her death shocked and saddened people, and her family felt it the strongest, yet after her death her daughter Sophie discovered something in Jane’s kitchen. “We were sitting around shell-shocked, but then I found a Murrumbidgee cake in her larder. A beautiful thing, rich, dense, a favourite of hers. I cut slices of it, and we ate them, and it was wonderful. Her last gift to us.”

Jane would buy these cakes in Oxford, eventually getting hold of a recipe after several years of searching and put it in English Food. It’s a fruit cake so full of dried fruit and nuts that there’s barely any cake batter, rather like American fruit cakes, she says. The cake takes its name from the Murrumbidgee river in Australia, so how it ended up in Oxford I don’t know.

First of all, line a 2 pound loaf tin with greaseproof paper and set the oven to 150°C. Next, mix together the fruit and nuts in a large bowl: 7 ounces of whole Brazil nuts, 5 ounces of whole walnut halves, 8 ounces of halved stoned dates, 3 ½ ounces of candied citrus peel, 6 ounces of glacécherries, 3 ½ ounces of raisinsand the grated zest of a lemon. Phew!


Now mix 3 ½ ounces of plain flour with ½ teaspoon each of baking powder and salt and five ounces of caster sugar. Sift these over the fruit and nuts, getting your hands in there to make sure they all get coated.

In a jug, beat 3large eggs with a teaspoon of vanilla extract, pour into the fruit and flour and mix well until you have a stiff batter.
Pile in the mixture into the tin, pressing down the fruit and nuts and smoothing as well you can; I found this very tricky as there is so little cake batter but it all turned out okay in the end.

Bake for two hours, testing the mixture with a skewer to see if it’s baked, if during the bake, the cake looks as though it’s getting too brown, cover with brown paper.
Cool the cake for 10 minutes and turn out onto a clean tea towel and make several holes in the cake with a skewer. Feed it with some alcohol; Jane suggests brandy or rum, but you can use any spirit or liqueur you like, I went with rum. Wrap the cake in the towel, cover with cling film and pop in the fridge. Every week, for one to two months, feed with a little more alcohol.

#431 Murrumbidgee Cake. This was a wonderful cake! I know fruit cakes like this are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have to say it beats a Christmas cake hands-down, and as just as Jane says, there’s a good richness to the cake but without the sweet icing that usually adorns a fruit cake. The fruit was soft and the cake mixture deliciously moist. It’s quite an expensive cake to make, unless you eat a variety of dried fruit and nuts anyway and have them in your larder, but it is definitely worth it. It may not have become a British classic, but it is a Grigson family classic, and that’ll certainly do for me. 9/10

#429 Cumberland Currant Cake


Jane Grigson was brought up in the far north of England, and this currant cake was very popular there when she was a child. At the end of winter, when there was nothing fresh left in store aside from a few apples and jars of dried fruit, this cake – more a tart really – would be baked. Everywhere in the north has a similar sweetmeat: Eccles cakes, Chorley cakes and currant squares, and of course mince pies. Children usually called them squashed fly cakes or fly cemeteries. ‘We loved it’, she says, ‘and giggled in a corner, while the family talked. No one realised that they were eating a cake with a history, and medieval ancestors.’

In these days of seasonless, year-round fresh fruit and vegetables flown in from all four corners of the globe, many turn their noses up at these dried-fruit based treats. Well not me! I could eat them all year round, though they do taste most delicious when it’s cold and bracing outside.


To make the currant cake, first make a rich shortcrust pastry by rubbing in 5 ounces of butter and 5 ounces of lard into a pound of plain flour along with a pinch of salt. Form a dough with a little cold water, wrap in cling film and pop in the fridge to rest for around 30 minutes.

Use half the pastry to line a tin with approximate dimensions of 7” x 11” x 1”. My tin wasn’t quite the size as in Jane’s recipe, but it still worked very well.

Now it’s time to layer up the filling ingredients. Start with a good covering of raisins or currants (10 ounces) and then 4 ounces of candied mixed peel. Peel, core and grate a medium-sized cooking apple and scatter that over the mixed fruit. Next, melt 5 ounces ofbutter in a saucepan, remove from the heat and add 4 ounces of pale or dark soft brown sugar (when given the choice, I always go for the latter), 5 tablespoons of rum, a teaspoon of ground allspice and half a teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and mace. Beat them all together and pour evenly over the fruit.

Now roll out the remainder of the dough so that you can cover it – don’t forget to brush the edges with milk or beaten eggbefore you cover. Press down on the edges, then trim and crimp the pastry. Now brush the lid and scatter over some granulatedor Demerara sugar.

Bake at 200°C for 30-35 minutes until golden brown.

Jane suggests either eating hot as a dessert with cream, custard or #211 Cumberland Rum Butter, or cold cut into squares for teatime.

#429 Cumberland Currant Cake. Well I ate this oblong of deliciousness both hot and cold, and it was delicious. The pastry was very rich and the filling sweet yet still tart from the cooking apples; not unlike a giant, square mince pie; and seeing as I’m a mince pie fan, it’s getting a very good mark. When I return to trade at Levenshulme Market later this month, I shall be bringing some of this to sell. Delicious! 9.5/10.

#259 Banbury Cakes

There has been previous debate and discussion here on Neil Cooks Grigson on the what makes a Chorley cake different from an Eccles cake. It wasn’t really solved, but I thought that an Eccles cake was made with shortcrust pastry and the Chorley was made with puff pastry. It seems that coming in from leftfield to further confuse us is the Banbury cake. Which is what I thought was a Chorley cake. As far as I can see the only difference is maybe that there are more species in it as well as a touch of rum. Does anyone know the differences between the three?

Banbury cakes certainly go way, way back – Griggers found a recipes for them in a book called The English Hus-wife, written in 1615. Hus-wife: what a great word. I’m going to start using it in conversation.

Anyways. In the EEB department of Rice Uiversity we had a Thanksgiving dinner and we were all asked to bring something in for it. These little cakes seemed like the perfect thing to make for a buffet – no need for slicing or even plates. I’m always slightly nervous of making recipes from the book for these kinds of things in case the recipe is God-awful – like previous bad experiences like the Whim-Wham, English Rarebit, the Rice Cake or the Mocha Cake.

First of all, melt two ounces of butter in a saucepan. Remove from the heat and add four ounces of currants (or if you live in America, raisins!), an ounce of candied chopped peel, two ounces of sugar, ½ a teaspoon each of ground allspice and nutmeg as well as ¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon and a tablespoon of rum. Allow to cool.

While you’re waiting, roll out some puff pastry thinly and cut seven inch wide circles. Put a spoonful in the centre of the circle in line about five inches long, drawing and folding in the pastry, pinching in the edges. Turn them over and flatten them slightly with the rolling-pin so that you have oval shaped cake. Make three slashes over the top, brush with egg white and then sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 15 minutes at 220°C (425°F). Allow to cool on racks.

#259 Banbury Cakes. These were very good indeed and they went down well at the thanksgiving dinner which was good, where I got the chance to shamelessly plug the blog. I think I prefer these to the Eccles cakes too, though there isn’t much in it. I scoffed down two as soon as they were cool, which wasn’t good as I was meant to be off wheat at the moment. One thing led to another and I ended up drinking wheat beer and eating a giant pizza in Late Nite Pie. Oh dear. 7.5/10.

#226 Eccles Cakes

This time of year there is no seasonal fruit, except for champagne rhubarb, and so we have to turn to stored apples and pears or dried fruits. Some people don’t like dried fruits, but I am a definite fan, and thought an attempt at the classic Eccles cake was well overdue. There has been a bit of a disagreement in the house as to whether the recipe in English Food is actually a true Eccles cake or not – Charlotte reckons it should be made with puff pastry and Griggers (and me!) reckons a lard shortcrust pastry. A quick look in the Dairy Book of British Food gives an extra point to Charlotte. Does anyone know the true answer? Give me your opinions on this one please! I’d hope it is a lard-based answer as that seems more Northern English to me. Griggers says that if it made with puff pastry, you have a Banbury cake, which is Southern English. Oh well, we may never know.

Makes 10-12 cakes.

First of all, make some pastry using 4 ounces of lard and 8 ounces of plain flour. While it rests in the fridge make the filling: melt together an ounce of butter with 2 ounces of caster sugar, then stir in 4 ounces of currants, an ounce of candied peel, plus half a teaspoon each of ground nutmeg and allspice. Leave to cool. Roll out the pastry and cut out circles around four inches in diameter. Place a spoon of the currant mixture in the centre and bring in the pastry by its edges so that you can pinch them together. Turn the cake over and gently roll them to flatten them slightly. Make a hole in the centre, brush with a little egg white and sprinkle with caster sugar. Bake at 220⁰C for about 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.


#226 Eccles Cakes. Whether they are true Eccles cakes or not, these were delicious. The filling was rich, but wasn’t too sweet and I liked the spice element (which I thought wasn’t in an Eccles cake). It also reminded me how good lard shortcrust pastry is. If you’ve never tried one – give it a go. 7/10.

#208 Cumberland Plate Tart

It seems that the further north you go in England, the more desserts and teatime treats using currants and raisins there are: Eccles cakes and Chorley cakes are the ones that spring to mind. I’ve never heard of one from Cumberland before; funny, since there are actually two recipes from there in English Food.

I think these things were popular because they are very comforting and definitely a wintertime food, and it is grim Up North, as we know. It has been particularly grim at the minute – particularly around the Cumberland area – so I thought I’d give one a go. The best thing about the recipe is that it is a very good store-cupboard pud – I didn’t have to buy anything, I had it all in! Tiny things please tiny minds.

First make some shrtcrust pastry using 2 ounces each of butter and lard, 8 ounces of plain flour and some milk. Roll out half and line a deep oven-proof plate. Now make the filling: weigh out 3 ½ ounces of golden syrup. To do this, put a saucepan on your scales and tare them before adding the syrup. Add an ounce of butter to the pan and warm though gently so that the butter melts and the syrup becomes runny. Now stir in 5 ounces of either raisins or currants (or a mixture, you devil), an ounce of chopped peel, an ounce of ground almonds, ¼ teaspoon each of ground nutmeg, allspice and salt and finally 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. Use some egg white to brush around the edges of the pastry, roll out the last of the pastry and cover it. Crimp the edges, make a hole in the centre and then brush with more egg white and sprinkle with some caster sugar. Bake for 15 minutes at 220⁰C, then turn the oven down to 190⁰C and bake for a further 30 minutes. She don’t say, but serve it with some cream, innit.


#208 Cumberland Plate Tart. Just what the doctor ordered! I really like this sort of dessert, but many can’t abide currants and raisins and things like that these days, so they are going out of fashion which is a big shame. What can be bad about sweet fruit, moist almonds and good old golden syrup? Bring ‘em back I say. 6.5/10