Date Nut Bread

Close to 40 years ago, the late, great boat builder and historian, Maine-born John Gardner told me about date nut bread as a memorable recipe from his youth in the early 20th century. Over the years, several Maine recipe collections have come to me, some written by hand into notebooks, others on cards, and over and over in sections recorded in the first half of the 1900s, I find date nut bread. The recipe crops up in community cookbooks, too, the ones assembled by organizations like the Rebekahs and Granges. Then lo, in my personal copy of Marjorie Standish’s “Cooking Down East,” published in 1969, the pages containing banana bread, lemon bread and date nut bread are the most spattered pages in the entire book.

I have a strong personal association with the holidays and date nut bread. My mom encouraged my sister and me, once we were in our teens, to cook Christmas and New Year’s dinners. She helped us devise the menus, plan the timing, and she stuck around the kitchen to lend advice and help while we cooked. One dessert I made was a lovely mixture of crumbled, canned date nut bread folded into whipped cream then frozen. That dessert is now extinct because, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen canned date nut bread in decades. However, we can use our own homemade date nut bread to crumble into whipped cream if we want.

I was curious to see if any of you still made date nut bread. Marie Lorizio of Newport sent along her recipe, and Ruth Thurston in Machias sent a date nut bar recipe. I fished around in some older Maine recipes I have and came up with the recipe that follows. Marie fortified her bread with raisins and soaked the dates and raisins in strong coffee. Lots more flavor there than plain old water.
Between the 1920s and the present a couple of things have changed about date nut bread; the older recipes have less sugar and a little less shortening in them. Hmmm. By the 1960s the proportions in the recipe here seem to have appeared and have not changed very much since then. It is good to know you can knock both the sugar and fat back a little and still get a nice bread.

As a New Year’s bonus, I offer you the date nut bread dessert I remember from my childhood.

Date Nut Bread

1 cup chopped dates
½ cup raisins (optional)
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup boiling water (or coffee)
1½ teaspoons soda
½ teaspoons salt
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup sugar
1½ cups flour
½ to ¾ cups chopped walnuts

Put dates, optional raisins and butter in a mixing bowl and cover with boiling water or coffee. Let stand for about 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. To the dates add soda, salt, eggs, vanilla and sugar. Beat well, then add flour, mix thoroughly, then fold in nuts. Pour batter into loaf pan. Bake 60 to 65 minutes or until a tester inserted comes out clean.

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Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...