Ask Chef Phyllis:
My daughter came over the other day and said, “Remember when you could buy a good date-nut bread in the supermarket?” I thought yes, I do. And then, without blinking an eye, we went and looked for a recipe card that my mom gave me when I first got married, and it was dated 3-25-55. The amounts on the card are not legible anymore, but I do know for sure that the breads were baked in medium-sized, cleaned out vegetable cans.
Needless to say, there is a plethora of recipes on the internet for date and nut bread but not so much for the “baked in a can” type. I don’t have time to try them all, but Mom’s had maybe rye, white, and whole wheat flours in them. Her bread, which we wrapped and gave as holiday presents, was moist, dark, and especially dense. The dates were boiled in water with baking soda, and to the best of my knowledge, it was easy to do. Can you help?
—Mary C. from Chicago, Illinois
Wrapped in colorful holiday paper and tied with curling ribbon, your date and nut breads would be a delight to behold and even better to eat. But I wrestled with the idea of your baking your beautiful breads in unsafe cans. Safe cans would be BPA-free, aluminum-free, and unlined, but I still have reservations about using vegetable cans at all. I strongly advise against using any aluminum vessels or pots for cooking or baking, including the disposable foil baking pans that are available everywhere.
Instead, I recommend using round steel tins, about 3- to 4-inches high. These have recently popped up online and are suggested for brown bread (I remember buying good Boston brown bread in a can) as well as date and nut breads.
Or you might consider using really cute smaller (5×2½-inch) loaf pans, usually joined together for easy handling, which make an adorable and practical size for gift giving.
There’s no doubt that this recipe for the date and nut bread of your youth is far healthier than any store-bought date and nut bread available now.
This recipe is full of old fashioned goodness, and I hope you enjoy it!
Date and Nut Bread
—Recipe adapted from the circa 1939 edition of The American Woman’s Cook Book by Ruth Berolzheimer, published by the Culinary Institute of America, Chicago, Illinois.
Special equipment: 3 (28 oz.) tomato cans or 6 (14½ oz.) vegetable cans or 8 (5×2½-inch) mini-loaf pans.
2½ cups whole dates, pitted and finely chopped
2 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1–1½ cups coconut sugar (I used the lesser amount)
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2¾ cups white whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur’s)
1 cup sifted whole wheat flour
¼ cup light rye flour
1 cup walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Place rack in middle position.
- If using cans: Wash and dry cans thoroughly. Generously grease and flour cans, removing the top lid but keeping the bottom lid intact. Set aside in a cool place. If using mini-loaf pans, grease and flour the pans, then set aside.
- Combine dates with boiling water and baking soda in a small bowl. Cover for at least 30 minutes (longer is okay), or until dates are soft. Set aside to cool. Once dates are cool, whisk in eggs and vanilla.
- In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar with a hand mixer until fluffy. Mix salt and baking powder into the flours, then slowly add to the creamed mixture. Mix well. Add nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Combine well, then add the date mixture. Mix with a rubber spatula until well incorporated.
- Scrape or scoop the batter evenly into prepared cans or mini-loaf pans, filling about ⅔ full and smoothing the tops as you go.
- Place your vessels on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour, rotating the rimmed tray half way through. If using the mini-loaf pans, reduce baking time to ½ hour.
- Test with a skewer for doneness. Let loaves cool for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges before removing. Cool thoroughly before wrapping.
Chef’s tip: This came as news to me, but I’ve discovered that water isn’t the only liquid cooks used for soaking dates and baking soda. They added other liquids as well, such as a ½ cup of hot black coffee, brandy, apple cider, orange juice, or sour milk. However, boiling water still made up most of the liquid, while these others liquids were added for flavor. Since learning this, I think experimenting with different liquids would be fun. Enjoy the season, and share the date-nut bread with your daughter for a delightful Christmas morning breakfast.
Image from Phyllis Quinn.