Monday, January 17, 2011

The Ancestor of the Raisin Cookie?

One of the types of cookies my mother-in-law always makes for Christmas is something the family calls a "raisin cookie."  These are half-circles of a sweetened dough, a little like piecrust dough in character, with a sweetened raisin filling. 

After Christmas dinner this year, my husband Googled for "raisin cookie" and was frustrated to find no real information about these cookies or, for that matter, any indication that other people were making and eating them.  He was mildly distressed at the thought that the "raisin cookie" might be dying out, and might soon no longer be made.

Today, I did some Googling of my own, using the search term "filled raisin cookie", and fared rather better than he had.  In fact, I found a number of rather similar recipes, each of which looked as though it might produce the type of raisiny goodness that my mother-in-law bakes.  Most of the recipes included a comment by the contributor to the effect that "my 80-something-year-old grandma (or mother or whatever) has baked these for many years."  (My mother-in-law is also over 80).  I found recipes from a number of sites, including allrecipes.com, BakeSpace, and grandmaskitchen, to name the ones I bothered to print out. Some of these sites had pictures of the cookies in question, and except for the shape they looked a lot like the cookies my mother-in-law bakes.  (My husband told me after I started my research, though, that his mother used to make her raisin-filled cookies round, out of two pieces of dough, but changed to her present format, apparently because it was less work to just fold over one circle.)

However, I'm not really interested in finding cookie recipes, since I'm not interested in baking. I'm interested in finding out how and where the "raisin cookie" evolved and, if possible, whether they are still being made.  The grandmaskitchen site gave me an interesting clue; it noted that the elderly female baker in question claimed that the recipe "is based on an old-fashioned British pastry called ‘Eccles cake.’" So I started Googling for the term "Eccles cake," and turned up a lot of information.

Wikipedia reports that an "Eccles cake" is named for the town of Eccles, which is in Lancashire, and it's a small round cake, made from flaky pastry and stuffed with currants and may be sprinkled with demerara sugar.  Other sites purported to give more history, tracing the Eccles cake to a shopkeeper named James Birch in the late 18th century and/or a woman named Elizabeth Raffald who published a popular cookbook in 1769 that contains a similar recipe. The Food Timeline reports both versions and notes that early versions of the Eccles cake probably contained alcohol as well as fruit. Yet another site, whose author claims to be "rather rubbish" at baking, claims that Eccles cake is an "English classic" and that it's practically required "that every Englishman (and woman) know how to make an Eccles cake."

The English angle is kind of mystifying to me.  My husband's mother's family has Scottish ancestry, but Eccles is effectively part of Manchester, which makes it definitely part of northern England, but not close enough to the Scottish border to be plausibly Scottish.  So far as I know, my husband's family doesn't have English forebears. EDIT: My husband read this post and confirmed that his family does not have English ancestry on either side.

On the other hand, one of the sites I found noted that Eccles cakes travel well, and were being exported to the young United States as early as 1818.  That suggests, to me, that there might have arisen a fashion among U.S. bakers for trying to imitate the Eccles cake, and that fashion may have given rise to cookbooks with similar recipes--one of which my mother-in-law is using.  However, the photographs of actual Eccles cakes look very different from her cookies, to me, so I don't think the case for this theory is quite proven.

I should ask my mother-in-law for her recipe, both to see how it compares to the recipes I've found on the Internet, and to have one of my husband's favorite cookie recipes handy, in case I someday want to try to bake some. 

11 comments:

  1. Probably not relevant, but I used to like a commercial raisin-filled cookie that was basically two sweet crackers with raisin filling in between. Haven't seen them in years.

    You may also be amused (and this is equally irrelevant to your research) to hear that when I used to work Renaissance Faire, "Eccles cake" was our code word for a collection of performers who were all in a little circle facing inward and talking to each other -- something we weren't supposed to do, since we were supposed to be accessible to the audience. Someone would come up to the group and work the words "Eccles cake" into their seemingly casual comments to remind everyone to open up the circle ;)

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  2. Probably not relevant, but I used to like a commercial raisin-filled cookie that was basically two sweet crackers with raisin filling in between. Haven't seen them in years.

    I don't know--it might well be relevant. It might be a US commercial effort to make a knock-off of the Eccles cake. Do you remember the brand name?

    I am also amused by your Ren Faire "Eccles cake" story. What a clever device! (Though, of course, "Eccles cakes" weren't period for the Renaissance!)

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  3. My grandfather loved the cookies that Chris mentioned...which I adored as well. But I haven't seen that brand in years either. I was at a Highland Games last summer and found Crawford's Garibaldi biscuits that were quite close. I found them on Amazon...I should order a few packages.

    http://www.amazon.com/Garibaldi-Crawfords-Biscuits-100g/dp/B001J5SW5U/ref=sr_1_8?s=grocery&ie=UTF8&qid=1296091365&sr=1-8

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  4. Ah, me again...minutes later. Was the cookie Sunshine brand's Golden fruit raisin biscuits? They were phased out when they merged with Keebler. I really liked those cookies.

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  5. Thanks Goldilocksprime! I will have to get some Crawford's Garibaldi biscuits and some Sunshine fruit raisin biscuits and try them out.

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  6. If you believe Wikipedia, both Garibaldi biscuits and Sunshine's Golden Fruit Raisin Biscuits are cousins of the Eccles cake.

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  7. My mother-in-law also made such cookies, using a basic sugar cookie for the cookie part. FWIW, she did have some English ancestry (along with German, Dutch, Cherokee, and probably some others I've forgotten...). We always called them filled sugar cookies, or raisin-filled sugar cookies. For either name Google produces an abundance of recipes.

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  8. Hi, Paula!

    I find it interesting that your mother-in-law also made raisin cookies. Eric's family is of mixed ancestry also--a very similar mixture in fact. (Scots and Rhinelander German as well as English on his mother's side.)

    Thanks for stopping by.

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    1. I know I'm picking up a thread that's over a year old - but I happened to Google "raisin cookie" with the same frustration you described above, until I came across your link. I had never even heard of a raisin-filled cookie until I met my wife. She comes from the Central PA area (near Bucknell) where these cookies are available at a number of small bakeries and farmers markets. It seems to be a PA-Dutch recipe that has become a staple of the area. I've become completely addicted to the soft-pillowy-goodness, and usually buy a dozen or two every time we go home to visit. As a side note, though, they're almost always just called "raisin cookies". Hmmm.... time to grab another batch!

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    2. I completely agree with Mark.

      These cookies are very common in Central PA (often baked by Amish or Mennonites nowadays), and are available at farmer's markets throughout the region. I grew up there and miss raisin-filled cookies so much, I stock up every time I go.

      To me, they seem like a German-style baked good, not English. They are sold along side snickerdoodles and whoopie pies, and I would guess the histories are related.

      Good luck!

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  9. Mark H: I don't object to new comments on old threads, unless they're spam. Welcome to my blog!

    Since I live only about an hour from Pennsylvania Dutch country, that too may be relevant to my quest for raisin cookies and recipes. Thanks for the information.

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