Crave: Christmas cakes
photo by: Mother Earth News
The Christmas holiday season lends itself to all sorts of delicious sweets, and many recipes make an appearance only once a year. Maybe that explains why most cakes we enjoy during the holidays have such decadent ingredients: dates, lots of nuts and candied fruits.
History generally reports the ubiquitous fruitcake appeared in the Middle Ages in England, when the ingredients were exotic, expensive and difficult to find. So the treat was saved as a once-a-year extravagance. At that time, alcohol was used both as a flavoring and as a preservative; today, this ingredient isn’t necessary and is often omitted.
The baking process during this era also was arduous; a lot of preparation and hard work were necessary. Fruits were washed and dried, and the stone was removed. Sugar – which at that time was found in loaves or blocks – was cut, pounded and strained. Butter – again, nothing like our modern sticks – was washed and rinsed in rosewater. Recipes often called for a cook to beat the eggs for at least 30 minutes. Yeast was temperamental in those days and took some coaxing to do its work. Then, of course, there were the wood-burning ovens to be managed. All in all, baking was a full day’s work.
Another factor in the special nature of fruitcake is the fact that it is often – and it really should be – prepared far in advance of the holiday. The flavors blend and age, making each slice a rich, colorful treat worthy of a special holiday celebration.
Dried and fresh dates also are among the exotic ingredients generally available during the holidays. While not part of the ingredient list for fruitcake, dates are often combined with walnuts to create a delicious confection.
The beautiful date palm is found in desert regions; it likes the heat while its roots appreciate the wet conditions of an oasis. Believed to have originated around the Persian Gulf, the tree can be found in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, northern Africa, India, southern Italy, Sicily and Greece. The plant is part of the national emblem of Saudi Arabia, representing vitality and growth, and fresh dates are an expected part of traditional Arabian hospitality, served with a small cup of Arabian coffee.
In whatever way fresh or dried dates are served, they are a treat you won’t forget.
Grandma Dobbs’ Date Cake
Gayle Workman, Houston, hopes someone has a recipe for Date Black Walnut Cake. She says it was included in a pamphlet published by a life insurance company in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Bonnie Ruwart, Mission, Kan., sends a recipe from an old-time cookbook that is simplicity personified.
Put 1 teaspoon soda on 1 cup chopped dates. Pour 1 cup boiling water over this; cool. Add 1 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons shortening, 1 beaten egg, 2 cups flour, and 1 teaspoon baking powder. Mix well. Add 1 cup chopped black walnuts. Bake in 10-inch iron skillet at 350°F for 40 to 45 minutes.
Date and Black Walnut Cake
Sylvia Edge, Laurel Hill, N.C., sends a more involved recipe, which sounds just as delicious.
1 pound pitted dates
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups boiling water
2 cups sugar
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
3 1⁄2 cups flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup finely chopped black walnuts
1. Heat oven to 350°F.
2. Chop dates and place in bowl; sprinkle with baking soda and add boiling water. Let stand.
3. In another bowl, beat eggs, sugar and butter.
4. Add flour and date mixture alternately to creamed mixture. Stir in vanilla and walnuts.
5. Pour in cake pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
Dash of salt
1 cup half and half
1 tablespoons margarine
1. Place all ingredients except margarine in saucepan, and cook to soft ball stage.
2. Add margarine and beat until light. Spread on cake. Yields 8 to 10 servings.
Wall to Wall Fruit & Nut Cake
Helen Guthrie, Ames, Iowa, has lost her favorite recipes, including one for Wall-to-Wall Fruitcake, which she says was nothing but nuts and dried fruit and little else. “It was costly to make,” she writes, “but worth it.”
As luck would have it, one writer sends a recipe with that exact name. Mary Ann Smith, Yates Center, Kan., writes, “I am enclosing my recipe for Wall to Wall Fruit & Nut cake. Very good.”
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon almond flavoring
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pound golden raisins
1 pound walnuts
2 cups flour
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
1 pound candied pineapple, red and green
1 pound candied cherries
1 pound pecans, with extra for decorating.
1. Heat oven to 300°F.
2. Combine all ingredients. Place in loaf pan and bake for 90 minutes.