Date Cake From Leona

Don’t skip the soak in baking soda.

Dates by itineranttightwad, on Flickr (CC license)

Why? Well, it has to do with pectin. Pectin is made of different types of polysaccarides–sugar chains–that can tangle together and thicken a solution, a characteristic that makes it a useful ingredient in jam recipes, like the gooseberry jam recipe from Canby, Oregon.

Pectin is found in the walls of plant cells; apples and citrus fruit have enough that they can be turned into jams and jellies without added pectin, but other fruits, like peaches, often need pectin added from other sources.

When a date is dried, the pectin hardens the skin of the date. But pectin is actually slightly acidic. When soaked in alkaline baking soda, the pectin reacts, forms a sodium salt, and washes out, softening the dates and making them into the sticky, rich treat we want to bite into in our cakes.

Looks a bit like the second date cake recipe from 1914’s The Neighborhood Cook Book by The Council of Jewish Women:

Date Cake No. I

One cup dates, stoned and cut in pieces, one teaspoon (scant) of soda, dissolved in a cup of boiling water. Pour water and soda over dates and let stand while mixing the cake. One cup sugar, one-half cup butter, two eggs, one and one-half cups flour. Spices to taste (about one small teaspoon cinnamon, and one-fourth teaspoon cloves). Bake forty-five to fifty minutes. Keeps like fruit cake.

Date Cake No. II

Five eggs separated, one cup granulated sugar, three-fourths cups dates cut fine (rolled in one-half cup flour), three-fourths cup walnuts, chopped, one-half cup flour, one teaspoon Crescent baking powder, one-half teaspoon cinnamon, one-fourth teaspoon cloves, one tablespoon lemon juice, one tablespoon hot water. Beat whites stiff and add last.

From a notebook originally from somewhere in the general area of Sterling, Colorado from the 1930s.

This recipe is from the 18th page of the notebook; here’s the page in full (click to enlarge).

Click to expand a longer explanation...
In the words of the seller:
I acquired this book from the great granddaughter of the woman who wrote this book back in a small Nebraska town in the 30’s. She belonged to that generation of rural housewives who worked tirelessly to make ends meet and “keep body and soul together” for their families working the farms.

Later addendum:

[A]fter a conversation I had with a friend’s sister who used to live in North Eastern Colorado, given the type of recipes listed we decided it might be from a small town there, i.e., Sterling or Fort Morgan. Also North Platte or Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Even Cheyenne, Wyoming. If you Google a map of Sterling, Colorado and pull back, you will see all these little towns in that tri-state area.

Date Cake From Leona

Cream together:

  • 1-1/2 c. white sugar
  • 3/4 c. butter

2 eggs
2 c. flour
1 c. dates
1/2 c. nuts
1 tsp. baking soda
1 c. hot water

Pour hot water on soda and dates; let cool.

1 tsp. vanilla.

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