Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Annual Christmas Date Nut Cake

Christmas is all about tradition, and when I was a kid, one of our family traditions was receiving a date nut cake in the mail from my father's aunt in Oklahoma.

The Annual Christmas Date Nut Cake.  My dad's aunt baked one in a large Bundt pan, wrapped it in several layers of aluminum foil, and mailed it to us every year, so it would arrive a couple of weeks before Christmas.  There was no need to ask what was inside the heavy box -- it was the same cake every year.  And we enjoyed it!  But the cake was so...huge.

To my young eyes, the Annual Christmas Date Nut Cake was the size of a small automobile tire, wonderful to taste but impossible for four people to finish eating during the holidays.

That's why, when I saw the vintage yellow Pyrex loaf pan sitting sadly by itself the other day, I decided to cheer it up by baking a Christmas Date Nut Cake in it.

I don't have the exact recipe Dad's aunt used, because she baked the cake with black walnuts instead of the regular kind.  But this recipe is very close; it makes one 9x5" loaf cake.

1 cup pitted and chopped dates*
1 cup water
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (not margarine)
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups flour
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts

* I think the texture of the cake is better if you cut up whole dates yourself, rather than using pre-chopped date pieces that many stores sell.  You may use a little more than 1 cup of dates, if you like.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour a 9x5 inch loaf pan.  In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the dates and the water to a boil.  Stir in 1/2 cup butter and 1 cup sugar until melted.  Remove from heat; stir in baking soda.  Let this mixture cool (should take about 10-15 minutes).

Place the date mixture in a large mixing bowl.  Blend in the egg, vanilla and flour, then mix in the walnuts.  Pour the batter into a prepared pan.

Bake the cake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.  Let it cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Then you can remove it from the pan (it's a little easier to slice this way) and let it finish cooling.  Serve by itself, with butter (if you want to treat it like bread), with ice cream and/or a glass of milk on the side.

You can replace 1/2 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour, if you like. You can also bake the cake in a greased and floured 9" round or square cake pan; this way, it won't take as long to bake (perhaps 20-30 minutes; check the cake after the first 20 minutes to see how it's doing).

I have a very clear memory of one particular Annual Christmas Date Nut Cake: it got lost in the mail en route from the Midwest to the West, and arrived a couple of weeks after it was baked.  Mom cut a slice out of the cake cautiously. The inside of the cake was still soft, but the outside of the cake was about the same consistency as that small automobile tire.  

Mom looked at the large, round, brown object for a bit; then she got out a recipe card and proceeded to make a slightly thin version of the penuche candy I told you about a few days ago, by adding another tablespoon or so of milk to the recipe.  

Mom frosted part of the Annual Christmas Date Nut Cake with the penuche and let it sit for a little while.  The frosting softened the outside of the cake and we were able to enjoy it, in spite of its long stay with the US Postal Service.

I probably don't have to explain that I always put 
the same frosting on a date nut cake, now that I'm in charge of baking it.

"Why does she always send us such a big cake?" I remember asking my mother.  "We can never eat the whole thing during the holidays."

"Love," Mom said, simply.  

In thinking about her reply now, it occurs to me that the Annual Christmas Date Nut Cake is a lot like love.  

Crafted by hand, made from the heart, given regularly, given freely, and given in great abundance.  No matter how much we want, there's always more.  And if love is delayed in its arrival, we can make it all the sweeter for the wait.

Here's a link to the penuche recipe:

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