Regional Recipes: Sly Cakes

April 13, 2015
Sly Cakes - current slices on a plate

Sly Cakes are a sweet pastry with a filling of spiced dried fruit. They are a traditional recipe from the North East of England.

When I went for a wander about the Grainger market and visited the French Oven Bakery I found they were selling a cake called Sly Cakes. I had never heard of these before so I decided to see if I could find out more. The cakes themselves looked like currant slices, but with that name they had to have a fascinating history.

Sly cakes

History of Sly Cakes

Digging further I found out that sly cakes can be found in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumbia and Durham. There are various fillings. Traditionally currants, butter and sugar are used but there are also variants that use figs.

Sly cakes are baked in a tin and in many Tyneside kitchens an old dinner plate was used.  Sly cakes are thought to be named because they have an plain boring appearance on the outside but when you bite into them you discover the rich filling within. They are also known as Cheats cakes in some places.

Sly Cakes - current slices on a plate

Whilst finding out about their history I also found out that there was a link between the town of South Shields, the American Civil War and sly cakes. The story begins in the 19th Century when a Scottish family called Chisholm came to South Shields from America. The family ran a bakery in Thrift Street near the docks. The daughter, Margaret often helped out in the bakery and became interested in a young man, William Whitfield, who lived further up the street.

Mr Chisholm was a strict Victorian father and kept a close eye on this daughter, but not close enough. Margaret was secreting love letters in the cakes which she passed to William whenever he bought something at the shop. This went on for five years.

Eventually they sought permission to marry but when this was denied they eloped. Margaret jumped from her bedroom window and they sped off in a horse and trap, heading north with Mr Chisholm in hot pursuit with a pistol.  He failed to catch them and they were happily married. The cakes that carried the hidden love letters are fittingly called sly cakes.

Sly cakes

How to make Sly Cakes

I think it is a lovely story and makes sly cakes so much more interesting. I had to have an attempt at making them. Sly cakes are make in two parts, the outer pastry and the inner filling. I do not often make my own pastry, it is much easier to buy it. This time I decided to have a try. Every time I make pastry the words of my domestic science teacher ring in my ears ” Shortcrust pastry, half fat to flour”. This was a sweeter pastry with sugar added to the mix.

pastry on a floured board with a rolling pin

Once the pastry was done I rolled half out and put it in a baking tray. The other half was to top the filling. The filling was made using dried figs, walnuts and sultanas which were chopped and added to a pan with some water. This was cooked until the water evaporated and the filling was sludgy. All that remained was to put the filling on the pastry, cover with more pastry and to bake in the oven.

A mix of nuts dates and raisins in a  pan on the stove with water

The resulting slices were lovely, a very rich filling in a lovely sweet pastry. They make a perfect treat with a cup of tea and would also be ideal to go in a lunch box as a sweet treat. The family loved them and I have been told I must make them again.

Read more: Traditional recipes from North East England

Sly Cakes Recipe

Sly Cakes - current slices on a plate

Sly cakes

Alison Maclean
Sly cakes are similar to currant slices. They are a sweet pastry enclosing a rich fruit filling. A traditional recipe from North East England
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 40 mins
Total Time 55 mins
Course Dessert
Cuisine British
Servings 10


  • 275 g plain flour
  • 100 g butter
  • 50 g lard
  • 50 g caster sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 225 g dried figs
  • 75 g walnuts
  • 100 g sultanas
  • 150 ml water
  • milk for glazing


  • Place the flour and salt in a bowl with the butter and lard.
  • Rub in until the mixture starts to stick together.
  • Stir in the sugar and then add water a little at a time to make a dough.
  • Chill in the fridge while you make the filling.
  • Chop the figs and walnuts and add to a pan with the sultanas.
  • Add the water to the pan and cook, stirring all the time until the water evaporates.
  • Leave to cool.
  • Preheat the oven to 190C, Gas Mark 5
  • Divide the pastry into two pieces and roll out one half to fit in a greased baking tin.
  • Spread the fruit on top then roll out the other piece of pastry and place on top.
  • Glaze with milk
  • Bake for 40 minutes until golden


Sly cakes are perfect with a cup of tea.
Keyword cake

Why not pin the recipe for later?

Sly cakes or currant slices. Sweet pastry filled with sweet spiced fruit. A traditional recipe from North East England

Other tea time treats from North East England

Felton spice loaf

If you are looking for other tea time treats you might want to make Felton spice loaf, a delicious fruit loaf with a hint of spice.

Felton spice loaf

Get the recipe: Felton spice loaf

Singing Hinnies

Singing hinnies are a delicious fried scone or griddle cake that are perfect with butter and jam.

Singing hinnies on a teatowel

Get the recipe: Singing hinnies

Have you ever made sly cakes? Let me know below.

19 responses to “Regional Recipes: Sly Cakes”

  1. Rebecca Vose says:

    Lovely post, these look yummy!

  2. Eileen Teo says:

    This is very interesting! Not seen them before! Must be yummy cos it used lard!

  3. Rachel says:

    These look lovely. I’m with you on the whole not making pastry very often thing though! Really interesting to read all the background too.

  4. Oh I’ve actually bought these from the French oven myself but didn’t know they were known as sly cakes and certainly didn’t realise they were regional (well from the North). I can vouch for the fact that they taste delicious!

  5. Fascinating story and these look like they could be adapted as a great way of using up leftover mincemeat after Christmas

  6. My Family Ties says:

    I think I have tried a similar recipe in Wales but it was more fruity than spiced, your recipe looks really tasty pinned for later! 🙂

  7. Galina V says:

    A great recipe and a fascinating story behind it. Haven’t heard of the sly cakes before, though I did try some currant cakes in the past.

  8. ,Karen Gianni says:

    Where do I go to nominate you and am I eligible to do so?

  9. John Spence says:

    Heard a feature on Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet this morning referring to dried fruit left over after Christmas. One member of the panel suggested reviving “Dead fly pie” and it reminded me of something my mother used to make called Sly Cake. Putting this into Google has led me to your blog and the history of the recipe. What a surprise, particularly as my family lived for many generations on South Shields where it seems to have originated. My mum’s recipe didn’t use dates or nuts, as I remember, only currants and raisins but I am now minded to have a go myself and re-live a childhood memory. So, many thanks to you and Radio 4!

  10. Kath Boon says:

    Commonly known as ‘dead fly pie’ or ‘fly’s nests’ in Northumberland. I make them occasionally when I have left over pastry. My husband loves them.

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