Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Hull House Nut Cakes - a recipe from 1912

This is a special recipe to me... when my husband and I returned from our honeymoon, we brought back a ton of dates with us (we were in Morocco and they were seriously the best, most moist, delicious dates I had ever had).. After eating them every way we could think of, and giving them to anyone who would take them, my mother-in-law suggested we use them to make an old family recipe, her dad's favorite date cookies. It is my understanding that her paternal grandmother, Grace Elizabeth, born in 1884, made a mean batch of these cookies...
She also had awesome accessories.

The recipe that was passed to me had only a list of ingredients, with the instructions to combine in order given and bake. Hoping to get an idea of what the resulting cookie would look like, I wondered if anyone had made these cookies lately, on, say, another blog, so off to the Google I went. I found ONE instance of this recipe on the entire internet.

From The Book of a Thousand Recipes, 1912. Arranged for the River Forest Women's Club, River Forest, IL
If it weren't for Radcliffe College's Culinary Collection preserving this piece of culinary history, and Google digitized books, this and all the other recipes in this book could have essentially disappeared. And when you make these cookies yourself, you will understand why that would have been a terrible thing, indeed.

And so, I present, an important piece of our shared culinary heritage, an heirloom recipe modernized for today's baker.

Hull House Nut Cakes
a recipe from 1912


1 lb whole dates (medjool or another sweet, fleshy variety)
1 tablespoon water
1/2 lb walnuts
1 c butter (room temperature)
1.5 c sugar
3 eggs (room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 lb flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Makes over 8 dozen small cookies (a lot... but they go fast!)

Pit dates. 

Pulse dates in food processor until chopped, and just beginning to pull together, stopping well before they turn into a paste. Pour water over dates, give them a quick stir, and set aside.

Chop walnuts in food processor until medium to fine. This is a small cookie, so you don't want very large pieces of nuts.

Sift flour. Add baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. Stir until well combined.

Beat butter until creamy.
Add sugar and beat until light in color.
The recipe has a high sugar to butter ratio - so it will still be grainy when it is time to add the eggs.

Add one egg at a time, beating each until fully incorporated.
Beat in vanilla extract
Fold in dry ingredients with a spoon.

Add dates and walnuts. Fold in, ensuring there are no oversized clumps of dates, but do not over-stir.

Put in refrigerator for 30 - 60 minutes to rest batter.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Put parchment on baking sheet. Grease with butter. Drop cookies by the spoonful, making each a little smaller than a golf ball, leaving some room between for cookies to spread out.

Place cookies in oven for 15-20 minutes until bottom is lightly browned and top is beginning to be golden brown. To ensure even cooking, rotate trays after 5 minutes.

Cookies will still be soft when removed from oven. Transfer cookies to cooling trays when sturdy enough to be moved.

The resulting cookies are that perfect combination of crispy edges with a moist, chewy interior.

They are definitely best the day-of, but they kept well in a tin for the next week.

Dates are so uncommon in modern baked goods, it was interesting hearing people guess what they thought was in the cookies!