Recently, the HH and I spent a couple of evenings with my old friend Phil, first in Montreal and then again here in Toronto. It was wonderful to see an old friend with whom I share so much history (we’ve known each other since we were both 15). She’s supported me through high school angst, sweet sixteens, no date for the prom, moving away to attend university, my first real boyfriend, moving to Toronto to attend graduate school, my starter marriage, my traumatic divorce, my first house purchase, and finally, meeting the HH and “adopting” The Girls. The list of events on her side to which I was witness is similar (minus the divorce and plus a couple of children). And yet the strange thing is, when we get together, we rarely talk about the past.
It’s more than just deference to the two men in our lives (who weren’t around when we experienced the early Phil-and-Ricki escapades, and who only made each other’s acquaintance at the tail end of the 20th century). No, it’s just that life keeps changing, and we always seem to be facing new work dilemmas, self-identity crises, weight roadblocks, or relationship worries (the last not discussed with the guys present, of course). So there’s no dearth of topics to keep us gabbing.
This last visit, however, we did ease into some reminiscenses about our high school days. I was kidding Phil about her teenaged quirks, and we replayed some of the times whiled away in her mother’s kitchen, sipping coffee and eating avocados. And, of course, we couldn’t forget her mother’s cakes.
Mother Phil had two sweet specialties. Well, I guess I’d characterize them as “two standards.” Actually, they were more like “two reliable standbys.” Okay; they were the only two desserts she knew how to make. Still, they were both terrific and I never tired of tasting them. The first was called “Pistachio Cake,” and it was, I later discovered (once she revealed the recipe after I’d moved away from home and had my own kitchen in which to bake) comprised of one box of yellow cake mix, a box of pistachio pudding mix, and some Hershey’s chocolate syrup. The result was a bundt cake round and high and light as a drizzle in July, with a meandering brown swirl throughout. As with most cake-mix cakes, the texture was impossibly airy and seemed so insubstantial as to require at least 3 servings before one felt even mildly appeased. In our case, Phil and I could polish off half the cake ourselves before even having to pour a second cup of coffee.
The other confection was a from-scratch affair that Mother Phil called, simply, “Date Cake.” Brimming with chopped, softened dates and just a whisper of cocoa, the resulting deep brown batter transformed into a dessert that, on first impression, impersonated chocolate very nicely. I’d always thought the cake was, indeed, a cocoa-based one until I was finally privy to the recipe and found that it contained only one tablespoon of the rich, dark powder. The rest of the intense flavor came courtesy of moist, sweet dates.
As someone who’d never tasted a dried (or fresh, for that matter) date before this cake, I wasn’t prepared for the level of sweetness imparted by the dates. Nowadays, I value dates for their natural sugar content (the highest in the fruit kingdom) and use date purée frequently, both for its added sweetness and moisture content. But in those days, dates, like Mrs. Phil herself–a stunning, accented import from Belgium–were considered exotic. I was jubilant the first time I attempted to recreate the cake on my own and it came out almost exactly as the original.
As Phil and I reminisced, I began to wonder whether I could reproduce the cake still, given my inflexible dietary restrictions. I dug up the recipe, which I’d scribbled hastily in pen across the faint turquoise lines of an old spiral notebook. The page is now torn along the spine and dotted with irregular, amoeba-like tea stains and little splotches of oil that render the paper transparent in spots. But the recipe appeared fairly straightforward and seemed to lend itself quite easily to adaptation. And even with the sprinkling of chocolate chips over the top, it seemed like a fairly healthy indulgence.
After a couple of attempts, I managed to reproduce something akin to the original. This cake would make a perfect snack, moist but not too sweet, with the pièce de resistance in the topping: the crunch of golden toasted coconut contrasted with the crackly, caramelized Sucanat and soft, melty chocolate chips. The HH pronounced this cake “Just like Duncan Hines!”–meant as a compliment, to be sure, but not an endorsement I’m sure I’d embrace. As for me, the dessert transported me back to Phil’s high-school era kitchen and the original cake of my adolescence. That memory alone is sweet enough for me.
Mrs. K’s Date Cake–2008 Edition
This is the kind of cake you like to have on hand as an after-school snack, or when you’re feeling peckish mid-morning. Baked in a square pan, it will keep, covered on the counter, for up to 4 days, longer if refrigerated (though bring to room temperature before indulging).
heaping 1/2 cup (75 g.) finely chopped dried (unsweetened) dates
1 cup (250 ml.) boiling water
1/2 cup (125 ml.) Sucanat
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) finely ground flax seeds
1/4 cup (60 ml.) coconut milk, almond milk or soymilk
1/4 cup (60 ml.) sunflower or other light-tasting oil
2 tsp. (10 ml.) pure vanilla extract
1 cup + 2 Tbsp. (170 g.) light spelt flour
1 heaping Tbsp. (10 g.) dark cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml.) baking soda
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml.) baking powder
1/4 tsp. (1 ml.) sea salt
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) Sucanat
1/4 cup (12 g.) unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup ( g.) dairy-free dark chocolate chips
Make cake: Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Lightly grease an 8-inch (about 20 cm.) square pan, or line with parchment paper.
Place the dates in a medium bowl and pour the boiling water over them; stir briefly. Add the sucanat, flax, milk, oil, and vanilla, and whisk to blend. Allow to sit until room temperature, about 15 minutes.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Pour the wet mixture over the dry and stir to blend. Turn into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
Sprinkle the topping ingredients over the cake: first, sprinkle the sucanat evenly over the surface of the batter. Cover with a sprinkling of the coconut, and end with the chocolate chips.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, turning the pan once about halfway through to ensure even baking, until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for at least 20 minutes before cutting (if you cut this while hot, the melty chips will stick to the knife and you’ll have a blob of goo instead of a piece of cake). Makes 9 large or 12 medium-sized pieces. May be frozen.
[This recipe will also appear in my upcoming cookbook, Sweet Freedom, along with more than 100 others, most of which are not featured on this blog. For more information, check the “Cookbook” button at right, or visit the cookbook blog.]