The holy month of Ramadan is only a few days away now, and as it was fitting, I thought it was about time I shared a more personal recipe closer to home. This is probably the first post where I am sharing a recipe which has been in the family for a pretty long time - across generations and continents, and for at least forty years.
What makes this date and walnut cake so special, is that as a young girl growing up it was only made on Eid. I have vivid memories of waking up on Eid morning's to a huge celebration breakfast prepared by my mum. This cake was always a welcome feature on the table and readily, one, two, three slices would be eaten quickly in succession! Apart from the two Eid days in the year, it was rare for my mum to make this cake on any other day.
Since it has been in the family for a long time I wanted to find out how the recipe came to be, and also why, as it definitely is not traditional or native to my Indian/East African heritage! So I naturally went about asking those who I knew had made the cake the most - my mum, paternal aunt, and paternal uncle. It was soon clear there was a little contention as to its origins - it appears that though my great aunt (paternal grandfather's sister) was the first to start making the cake, it has since been adapted, tweaked and made to taste individually, as with any recipe which gets shared and passed down.
My uncle can clearly remember this cake being made when he went to stay with my great aunt in the late 1970's, in a small town called Mbeya on the mainland of Tanzania. She had tweaked the recipe from a little cookbook, and as dates were not readily available back then she would only bake it on Eid and special occasions. The dates were bought in the market, open in hessian sacks, where you would choose the amount you wanted to be weighed by the shopkeeper - markedly different from the variety of packaging and labelled dates we are used to buying now! Once bought the dates had to be cleaned, before being soaked ready for baking. On rare occasions you could buy little bars of good quality dates, packed in cellophane, which were cleaner but more expensive.
A few years later my uncle landed in the UK for boarding school, and happened to come across the same book in a sale at the school and bought it! As a result the book came to be shared with my mum on his visits home for the weekend, and thus the date walnut cake soon became a regular feature on our Eid breakfast table too. In the meantime my paternal aunt had also borrowed the recipe from my great aunt, and it similarly became a cake enjoyed in her own household.
Still when I spoke to my mum, she maintained that at some point she had bought an Australian published baking book in the supermarket, when she became interested in baking cakes, also containing a recipe for a date walnut cake. It had less flour and more dates than the original older recipe, and its this method which my mum started to use instead, and which I came to know and love.
Unfortunately since moving to Dubai, my mums version has become misplaced and so its the original inspiration for the date and walnut cake which I have shared here, kindly given to me by my aunt. Its just as delicious and moreish though, making a perfectly loaf sized cake to share with the family! If preferred, it can be baked in a larger square tin, adapting the baking time as below. Don't over bake it though, as I clearly did in these images! Quantities less or more, I don't think you can ever go wrong with dates and walnuts in a cake! My aunts version also comes with a warm brown sugar sauce for pouring over the cake, which the sugar-craver in me loved!
So there you have it, a cake born outside of tradition which has become tradition!
Special thanks has to go my aunt, uncle and mum for their insight, plus my great-aunt for bringing this cake into our family. To this day she is an amazing cook, and loved by all for her unique and interesting recipes.
I might have broken the tradition by making this cake for the blog, but I know come Eid day I will definitely be keeping the tradition alive by making it again. As for my readers, whether you make it only for Eid, or for a rainy day, definitely do make it!
Date & Walnut Loaf Cake
250 ml boiling water
225g dates, chopped
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla essence
225g caster sugar
275g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
50g walnuts, chopped
For the topping:
75g soft brown sugar
2 tbsp. milk
50g walnuts, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 180 C, and grease a tin loaf pan, or square pan.
2. Pour the boiling water onto the dates, and stir in the baking soda. Leave to stand.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar, then add the egg and vanilla and mix well.
4. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt a little at a time, until all incorporated. Add the chopped walnuts, and then finally the date mixture, mixing to form a cake batter
5. Pour into greased tin pan and bake for 50-55 minutes if using a loaf pan, or 35-40 minutes in a square pan. Check for doneness.
6. Leave to cool in the tin.
7. To make the topping, heat together the sugar, milk and butter in a small saucepan. Boil for three minutes until all the sugar has melted.
8. Take off the heat and leave to cool slightly before spreading on to the cake, and sprinkling with chopped walnuts.
N.B. For those who don't want the extra calories, the topping can be excluded. It is still just as yummy!