Saturday, February 4, 2017

"The Tasha Tudor Cookbook" - Date and Nut Bread for my late mother's birthday

Date I made this recipe:  January 25, 2017 – my mom's birthday

The Tasha Tudor Cookbook – Recipes and Reminiscences from  Corgi Cottage by (illustrator) Tasha Tudor, Featuring More than 80 of Tasha Tudor's Favorite Family Recipes
Published by Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0-316-85531-6; copyright 1993
Recipe:  Date and Nut Bread – p. 35

Today, January 25th, was my mom's birthday.  The day before, January 24th, was my dad's.  They've been gone now for several years but I always try to observe their birthdays by making something they would have enjoyed.  And this is how I ended up making Date and Nut Bread but not just any old date and nut bread, Tasha Tudor's Date and Nut Bread.

My mother loved Tasha Tudor's illustrations.  She particularly loved Tasha Tudor's illustrations in the [classic children's] book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  The book, first published in 1911, was a favorite of my mom's and yet, I honestly don't recall her ever reading it to me or me ever reading it.  Interesting, that.

Before I get to Tasha Tudor though, I have to say a bit about The Secret Garden, a book I finally read this past summer and really enjoyed.

The central character of The Secret Garden is a young, orphaned British ex-patriot, Mary Lennox, who was living in India with her parents when a cholera outbreak killed her parents and most of the servants.  Mary's character is the book is most unloved: she is a sickly and petulant child, prone to temper tantrums and is spoiled rotten.

After her parents died, she was sent to England to live with her "hunchback" uncle, a widower, and his equally petulant and sickly child, Colin, at a house in the English countryside. Colin is the male version of his cousin, and when we meet him, he is bed-ridden, convinced he is dying.

Then one day, Mary and another boy, Dickon, the brother of one of the servants, stumble onto a "secret" garden. Turns out that Mary's aunt died after an incident in the garden, and her uncle's grief was such that the garden was left to rot and ruin until, of course, Mary and company saved the day. 

Thereafter, the book is as much about the restoration of the soul as it is about the restoration of the garden, and Mary and Colin and Dickon spend a lot of time in their secret hiding place/spiritual retreat, The End. Well, there's more to the story than that, of course, but why spoil things for you?  Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the story and could picture this "magical" garden in my head even though my life motto is (seriously) "Nature is not your friend."  But this is England folks, and the Brits are quite known for their fabulous gardens.  In fact, one of the songs I learned in childhood, English Country Garden, was featured on the TV show, Captain Kangaroo.  I'm pretty sure one of my early piano books contained that song (music) as well and now I'm sitting here thinking that I need to take up piano playing again!

So Frances wrote the book and then Tasha Tudor illustrated one of the versions and that is how my mother came to know both ladies.  But I must confess that I was a little surprised that the illustrations were a little on the shy side and not just in Tasha's version, but in many other illustrated versions I looked at.  I think back in the day, the emphasis was on the book and not so much the art but that's just speculation and recollection.

In addition to The Secret Garden, Tasha also illustrated A Child's Garden of Verses, The Night Before Christmas, The Doll's Christmas, and A is for Annabelle which rings a bell with me as I think I might have owned that book as a child.  You should also know that Tasha was a two-time Caldecott award winner, an award given to the artist who illustrated a "most distinguished picture book for children." And as you might imagine, The Tasha Tudor Cookbook is filled with delightful illustrations as well.

So anyway, one day mom mentioned in passing that she liked Tasha Tudor and The Secret Garden, and so I tucked that information away for future use.  And so sure enough, shortly thereafter, I was out Christmas shopping, stumbled upon a book, The Art of Tasha Tudor, and knew I had to buy it for mom.  If memory serves, this may have been the last Christmas present I gave her; she passed away in March 2008. 

Well, to say my mother was "gobsmacked" (a British term meaning "utterly astonished") is an understatement.  In fact, "touched" is probably the word that fits best as she couldn't believe I remembered what she said, much less bought her this book filled with Tasha's artwork, including illustrations from The Secret Garden.  Well, I am a list-keeper from way back and so was happy to have noted it and also put that notation to good use.

And then as luck would have it, I was [vintage] cookbook shopping online  one day when I once again stumbled upon a Tasha Tudor book, this time The Tasha Tudor Cookbook.  Huzzah!  Well now I was cooking with Crisco, wasn't I?

So as soon as it arrived, I made a note on my calendar to make something from it for mom's birthday and so I did and it was this Date and Nut Bread.  My mother made Date Nut (we left out the "and") bread all the time and the recipes are very similar and equally delicious. 

Back when mom made it, she chopped the dates herself and also chopped the nuts in this vintage nut chopper that I now own.  Thanks to advances in date chopping, I was able to buy my dates already chopped and ready to go, leaving me with only the nuts to chop and add to the mix.  And yes, I could have purchased already-chopped nuts as well, but I felt I needed to put some kind of labor into it to make it more authentic.  Besides, chopping dates is sticky business and I was happy to let go of that task.

This is an easy recipe as were the vast majority of the recipes included by Tasha in her cookbook. Her Table of Contents includes:  "Appetizers and Salads;" "Soups;" "Breads and Muffins;" "Main Dishes;" "Accompaniments;" "Dessert and Beverages," and "Christmas Treats," and while several recipes were tempting, I had to go with the bread, final answer.

Now before I get to the recipe, I have to share a few tangential stories with you about cosmic coincidences—or are they?

In September 2016, I once again visited my mom's only surviving sister, Mary, who lives in Michigan where I am also from.  My aunt's house is in Michigan's north woods and as you might imagine, there are lots of animals there, including deer. I'm mentioning deer because you should know that my dad was a wildlife research biologist who specialized in white-tail deer and who managed a research station a couple hours away in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  Deer factor into our story.

Okay then, well as you can imagine, my aunt and I spent some time discussing my mom and what their childhood was like and it was great reminiscing although I couldn't help but wish that mom was there with us.  Or was she?

Because, reader, on my last morning there, I needed to run into town to pick up some things for my aunt, and just as I rounded the corner to her house and driveway, a doe and two fawns crossed the road in front of me.  Well that gave me chills because really, what are the odds that a momma deer and two baby deer would be there at that exact moment?  Plus, they paused for a minute to look at me instead of just high-tailing their white-tails outta there!  I have to say, I took this as a sign.  (Sadly, I didn't see a daddy deer but maybe he let momma and "kids" have their own moment with me?)

Later that day, I flew home, still thinking about the deer in the woods, and the next day I was channel-surfing and I kid you not, the movie The Secret Garden was playing.  Kid you not.  Honestly, what were the odds!  I have to say, it was a bittersweet moment for me and just kind of brought the whole mom thing full circle.

So Happy "Heavenly" Birthday, Mom, and thanks for the introduction to Tasha Tudor and to The Secret Garden.  And PS, thanks for "showing up" at Aunt Mary's. You could not have timed it better.

Date and Nut Bread- makes one 4 ½ x 9-inch loaf or two 3 x 6-inch pans
1 cup dates, chopped
½ cup sugar
¾ cup boiling water
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 farm-fresh egg, well beaten
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¾ cups unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup English walnuts, chopped

Great well one 4 ½ x 9-inch loaf pan or two 3 x 6-inch pans.

In a large mixing bowl, combined the dates, sugar, and boiling water.  Mix well and allow to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

When the [date] mixture has cooled, stir in the remaining ingredients.  (Ann's Note:  make sure your butter is really soft.) Pour the batter into the prepared bread tin.

Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes (less for smaller loaves) or until done when tested with a toothpick.  (Ann's Note:  mine baked for 55 minutes before it was done). 

Remove the bread from the oven, take it out of the pan, and place it on a rack to cool completely.

Ann's Note:  Tasha suggests slicing this bread very thin and then spreading it with cream cheese but when I was a kid, I must have put on an inch of butter (actually, margarine) instead.  Yum!

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