A Scottish Christmas tart
The Ecclefechan Tart is named after the town where historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle was born
Last time, the word of the week was dreich. This time, I’m going to introduce you to the Scottish word stooshie, meaning row or fracas. And I’m introducing you to it because it really is the only way to describe what happened a few years ago when the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s introduced a Scottish Christmas speciality called Ecclefechan Tarts to their shelves.
The Ecclefechan Tart is named after the town where historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle was born. As Ecclefechan is close to the border with England, it is sometimes called Borders Tart, but let’s face it, Ecclefechan is so much more fun to say. Until Sainsbury’s decided to sell it, the tarts were virtually unknown outside their homeland but when the supermarket chain decided to market the tarts as an alternative to mince pies, all hell broke loose—more commonly referred to in Scotland as a stooshie. How, the (English) people asked, could anything possibly replace the mince pie? Stooshie, did I say? Wars between the two countries have been waged over less.
I missed this sugar-laced stooshie back in 2007, of course, as I was living in India at the time. In fact, I was first introduced to the Ecclefechan Tart earlier this year in the middle of a wet field by esteemed Scottish food writer and baker Sue Lawrence, who had made some to share with the audience at an event we were taking part in at the Galloway Country Fair.
Although I tasted the tart in what we in these parts laughingly call summer, I was instantly struck by its Christmassy flavours and made a note to have a go myself later in the year. At first glance, there’s not much difference between mince pies and Ecclefechan Tarts. They’re both essentially dried fruit encased in pastry for a winter treat (although the Ecclefechan was probably more associated with Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), as this was traditionally celebrated more than Christmas in Scotland. But the first bite offers something very different. The mince pie is fruity and spicy, and usually contains suet (grated animal fat which harks back to the times when the pies actually contained meat along with the fruit). The Ecclefechan Tart, on the other hand, contains lots of butter, which gives a more caramel flavour. In fact, it’s reminiscent of Pecan Pie (especially mine, because I’ve put pecans in it). It also has the surprise addition of vinegar, which cannot be detected in the finished tart but balances out the butter a little. The butter and sugar also make a wonderful light caramel crust over the top of the tarts.
As with a lot of things that happened during the 10 years I was living in India, I’m very late to this particular party. I’m glad I decided to attend though, the Ecclefechan Tart is a revelation, so much so that I’m swithering about whether or not to make mince pies this year. One member of our household, who had best remain anonymous lest we stir up cross-border hostilities again, has already decided. “You know,” he said, “I think I prefer them to mince pies.”
Whatever you decide, have a very happy Christmas.
For the pastry
175g plain flour
A pinch of salt
100g butter cut in small cubes
50g almonds, ground
50g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
Grated zest of 1 orange
For the filling
125g dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
125g butter, melted and cooled
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
250g mixed dried fruit (I used dried cranberries and sultanas; you could use whatever you have, but nothing bigger than a sultana)
50g pecans, chopped
You will need 2x12-hole tartlet tins and an 8cm cutter.
To make the pastry, sieve the flour and salt into a large bowl. Add the butter and gently rub it into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the ground almonds, caster sugar and orange zest. Put the egg yolk in a small bowl and add two tablespoons of cold water. Stir the liquid into the flour mixture. Gently form the dough into a smooth ball with your hands, adding a little more water if necessary. Cover with plastic wrap, then chill in the fridge for 1 hour.
For the filling, whisk together the sugar, eggs and melted butter. Stir in the vinegar, dried fruit and chopped pecans. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius.
When the pastry has chilled, lightly flour a board or work surface and roll the pastry out to 2mm thick. Cut out 24 circles, re-forming scraps into a ball and rolling out until all the dough is used. Put a pastry disc in each hole of the tartlet tins, then fill almost to the top with the dried fruit mixture.
Bake for about 15 minutes or until the pastry is cooked and lightly browned. Serve warm with whipped cream.
The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.
The writer tweets@eatanddust