The first time I tasted this cake was the first time I celebrated a real Christmas. The year was 1992. I know this because I have a picture of myself from that December, and I look 19 years younger than I do today.
Until that point, the idea of Christmas had always been vague. A tree would be involved, and I guessed there would be stockings. And gifts. But beyond that, this New York Jew was pretty much in the dark.
That year, I flew to Dallas with Colin to spend the holiday with his family. I'd met his parents a few months earlier, in the summertime. Back then, we were just boyfriend-girlfriend, but Colin's mom kept introducing me to people as her son's fiancée. This unsettled me, largely because we weren't engaged. I'd remind her time and again that she was jumping the gun, but she paid me no heed.
That October, Colin slipped a ring on my finger.
The base of the Rules' Christmas tree was heaped with presents, and the stockings, the twinkling lights, the music, the whole Christmas thing just about knocked me over with its foreignness. I remember thinking, "OK, wait, what?" And then I had another glass of eggnog.
Several times that week, Colin's mom baked up a date nut cake. I say "several times" because we kept polishing the cake off, and then magically, within hours, another one would appear in its place. A serrated knife held court at the cake's side, and anytime anyone walked by, they'd lift the glass dome, grab the knife, saw off a cake hunk, and go about their business. In that family, walking around at Christmastime with a fistful of date nut cake was, and continues to be, the most natural thing in the world.
I already knew that Colin was the man for me. But was I sure about his family?
I'd had a good feeling about them that June, and by late December, with all those disappearing and reappearing date nut cakes, it became pretty clear that, indeed, I'd found the right in-laws as well.
Recipe for Clifton's Date Nut Cake
My adoration of the date/nut combo preceded my introduction to the Rules by many years. I grew up eating date nut bread (not cake). Whereas date nut bread is gentle and tender, this date nut cake is heavy, dense, and could be employed, if needed, as a weapon against an unwelcome intruder.
You can use any kind of chopped, pitted dates here. I've pictured Medjools above, which produce a moister result, but you can also use commercially packaged chopped dates. If using moist dates, halve them, pit them, and then toss them with a teaspoon or two of flour to make them easier to chop.
Finally: this is definitely a breakfast cake or snack cake. I wouldn't serve it for dessert.
Serves 8 to 10, or more, depending
4 large eggs, separated
1 pound chopped, pitted dates
1 pound pecans
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Position a rack in the lower part third of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Generously coat an angel food cake pan with nonstick spray. Line the bottom with a donut-shaped piece of parchment for easier removal.
In one bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Set aside.
In a separate, very large mixing bowl, stir together the dates, pecans, flour, sugar, and baking powder.
In a third bowl, add the salt and vanilla to the egg yolks. Beat on high speed for several minutes, until thick and pale. Fold the yolk mixture into the date mixture. Mix well. Then fold in the egg whites thoroughly, so no white streaks show. The batter will be very heavy and tough to mix.
Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake for about 75 minutes, or until nicely browned and a tester comes out clean. (Check after one hour and cover lightly with foil if it's getting too dark.) Cool thoroughly in the pan. Run a knife along the inside and outside edge, then invert onto a rack. The cake should pop out.