Banbury Cakes are small puff pastries with a rum-flavoured mincemeat filling inside them. The pastry is shaped into an oval patty folding the fruit filling completely inside, then three slashes are made in the top before cooking.
They can be served warm or at room temperature. They are traditional for Whitsuntide (about 7 weeks after Easter.)
They are very similar to Eccles Cakes.
The first written mention of Banbury Cakes was in 1586. These original Banbury Cakes, however, were probably actually more cake or scone-like than the ones we know today. Essentially, you made some dough, set some of the dough aside, mixed fruit up in the main dough, then rolled out the reserved dough and used that to cover pieces of the fruit-mixed dough, then baked it.
Here is an old recipe for Banbury Cake. Note how English used to use the word "paste" (like the French pâte) to mean "dough".
"To make a very good Banbury Cake, take foure pounds of Currants, & wash and pick them very cleane, and drie them in a cloth: then take three egges and put away one yelke, and beate them, and strayne them with barme [yeast], putting thereto Cloves, Mace, Cinamon and Nutmegges, then take a pint of Creame, and as much mornings milke and set it on the fire till the cold be taken away: then take flower and put in a good store of cold butter and sugar, then put in your egges, barme, and meale and worke them all together an houre or more: then save a part of the paste, & the rest breake in peeces and worke in your Currants: which done, mold your Cake of what quantity you please: and then with what that paste which hath not any Currants cover it very thinne both underneath and a loft. And so bake it according to the bignesse." Gervase Markham in "The English Hous-wife" (London, 1649)
The cross currently at Banbury is a replacement one. The Puritans pulled down the original one in 1601, because they felt that the rhyme that had made it famous had sexual connotations.
Literature & Lore
-- Catherine Emily Callbeck Dalgairns. The Practice of Cookery: Adapted to the Business of Every Day Life (8th edition). Edinburgh: Robert Cadell. 1840.
Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes.
-- Old children's rhyme