Aunt Tillie was my grandpa Elvin’s aunt, and lived to age 102. Her date cake recipe has been a family favorite over the decades. It’s moist, wholesome, fragrant, and has an earthy spiciness.
Medjool dates, toasted walnuts, lemon zest, buttermilk, cloves — what’s not to love? I tend to prefer rustic, wholesome desserts, and this cake epitomizes my taste in baking.
This sheet cake is a snap to throw together, and has become a reliable go-to cake for potlucks and informal gatherings. I have made the recipe my own by toasting the walnuts, adding lemon zest for the fragrance, and adding a bit of salt. I like salt in my desserts, and I think a scant quarter-teaspoon brings out the other flavors. This old-fashioned cake has an unusual (but not complicated) assembly process. You start by crumbling flour, sugar, and butter in a bowl with your fingers. You measure out and remove 1 cup of the crumbs, reserving this small portion to add later as the crumb topping of the cake. The crumbs that remain in the mixing bowl create the foundation of the cake batter.
Great-Great-Aunt Tillie’s Date Cake
1 cup walnuts
2 1/4 cups flour (separated as 2 cups and 1/4 cup)
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter
1 cup medjool dates
1 cup buttermilk
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 heaping teaspoon cloves
scant 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Butter and flour a 9 x 13-inch pan. Heat the oven to 350 F. While the oven is warming up, toss your walnuts into a small baking pan, and toast them. They will toast in the oven while you are preparing the rest of the cake batter.
Combine 2 cups of the flour, the sugar, and butter in a medium mixing bowl. Mix and crumble with your fingers. This is a great activity for kids. Remove 1 cup of this crumb-mixture, and reserve it for the topping. The remaining crumbs in the mixing bowl will create the foundation for the cake batter.
Chop the medjool dates. I like to use my big, heavy Chinese cleaver for this.
Remove the toasted walnuts from the oven, and chop them. Add the dates and walnuts to the crumb mixture in the mixing bowl.
Add the buttermilk, egg, and lemon zest to the mixing bowl. Stir to form a batter.
Sift in the remaining 1/4 cup flour, the baking powder, baking soda, cloves, cinnamon, and salt. Stir into the batter.
Pour the batter into the pan. Sprinkle with the reserved 1-cup of crumbs. Bake at 350F for 28-35 minutes.