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A Banbury cake is an English pastry that hails from the Oxfordshire town of Banbury. This little town, made famous by a nursery rhyme, is no less famous for its distinctive pastry, an oval shaped dessert stuffed with fruit and spices. Though indubitably British, many of the ingredients of the cake are native to the Middle East, giving this particular confection an unusual history.
The origins of the Banbury cake are believed to date back to the Crusades of the 13th century, when returning crusaders brought back to England spices, citrus, and other fruits never before seen by the British. These interesting new flavors became rapidly adopted into the relatively spice-free cuisine of England, leading to the Banbury cake, among other dishes. The first known recipe for the pastry dates back to the early 17th century, and the dish has retained its popularity throughout the centuries.
Some people incorrectly suggest that a Banbury cake is synonymous with a similar dessert called an Eccles cake. Though similar in filling, Banbury cakes are made with puff pastry and are oval-shaped, while Eccles cakes are shortcrust-based and round. Banbury cakes are also believed to be several centuries older than their Eccles cousin, and may have served as the inspiration for the more modern treat.
One of the benefits of the modern world is the availability of pre-made puff pastry, which makes baking the cake considerably easier, as homemade puff pastry is notoriously tricky. To make a traditional filling, cream butter with demerara sugar, then add currants, raisins, bread crumbs, and mixed citrus peels. Add an egg yolk and beat the mixture to an even consistency.
To form the pastry, roll out the dough in oval shapes and top with the filling. Pull the edges up to seal the filling completely within the pastry, while keeping the oval shape intact. Place on a baking sheet with the folded edges down and brush the top with egg white or water and sugar before baking.
Modern versions of the Banbury cake often include rum or rum flavoring to enhance the spicy and fruity notes of the dessert. Original recipes do not mention this ingredient, however, and many traditionalists prefer not to use it. Banbury cakes make excellent holiday treats and are a great addition to any Renaissance or Dickensian fair. They make wonderful tea cakes, and are great treats for children as they can easily be handled and carried around.