Grandma Rang’s Date Cookies

Families have different ways of celebrating Advent. When I was growing up, one way we celebrated was by getting a Christmas tree. Finding the tree was a man’s job, so each year Dad and I would head into the woods on the first or second Sunday of December. In the 1950’s, northern Wisconsin seemed to have more snow on the ground in December than it does today. We usually pushed through a foot or more of the white stuff, and one year when the snow was especially deep I remember having to walk in my father’s tracks as he broke trail.

Our labor was not always appreciated. We would look at thousands of spruce and balsam trees along a brook or near a swamp in a county forest near our home. Often the trees were laden with new snow that had to be shaken from the branches before we could pass judgment on a candidate. I am sure that we examined a hundred or more every year before we found the perfect tree. Then we would take it home so we could listen to complaints about bare spots and flat sides.

It was easier to take the criticism if we were eating one of Grandma Rang’s Date Cookies.  Baking those was one way my mother celebrated Advent, and they were Dad’s favorite cookie.

They are one of my favorites too.  About twenty years ago, the tradition of these cookies was enriched for me  by a wonderful lady, Hazel Olson, who gave me a cookie cutter that had belonged to her husband’s grandmother.  It is a tinned steel cutter with fluted sides, an inexpensive tool that was probably made sometime in the middle of the 19th century.  The handle is missing and the plating is worn off in a few places, but it works fine and feels good in my hand as I cut the rich dough.

Here is how to make them.

INGREDIENTS FOR DATE FILLING:

1 cup dates
1 cup cold water
1 cup light brown sugar
Dash of salt
2 T flour

PROCEDURE:

Chop the dates fine and put in a saucepan with the cold water, sugar and salt.  Heat to boiling and simmer until dates are tender, about 15 minutes.  Stir frequently.  Mix the flour in 1/4 cup cold water and stir into the dates.  Simmer another five minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool before using as filling.

INGREDIENTS FOR COOKIE DOUGH:
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup butter
3 large eggs
4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

PROCEDURE:

Measure the sugar into a large mixing bowl.  Add the soft butter and cream together.  Beat the eggs until lemon yellow and stir them into the sugar mixture.   Add the soda, baking powder and salt to the flour, and sift into the sugar mixture about one cup at a time, stirring thoroughly between additions.  The dough should be very stiff.  Add a little more flour if necessary.  

Preheat the oven to 350º and grease the baking sheets.

Flour a large breadboard.  Take 1/3 of the dough, work it into a ball, place it on the breadboard, press it into a round pat about 1 inch thick, and turn it over, making certain that there is plenty of flour on the breadboard.  With a well-floured rolling pin, roll the dough to 1/8 inch thickness.  

Cut with a 3 or 3 1/2 inch round cookie cutter.  Put the rounds on a well-greased cookie sheet and put about a heaping teaspoon of date filling in the middle of each.  Top with more rounds and seal the edges by pressing them with your fingers.  Try not to make the cookie edges too thin.  

Bake in a 350º oven until the cookies are lightly browned, about 10-12 minutes.  Cool on wax paper.

NOTES:

My mother’s recipe says to use a scant teaspoon of soda, baking powder and salt.  You can replace the 3/4 cup butter with oleo or with about 1/2 cup shortening, but the cookies are not as good.  Use a spatula to handle the rounds, as they are very tender.  The trimmings can be worked into the next 1/3 of the dough without harm.

Although you can eat them as soon as they are cool, these cookies are best after they have been stored in a tight container in a cool room for two or three days.  They keep fine for as many weeks.

Grandma Rang’s Boiled Raisin Cake

My formal education began with all-day kindergarten in Hayward, Wisconsin, and continued through first grade in the same old building.  After being shown the way a couple of times by my mother I walked the mile by myself and enjoyed the walks immensely. 

When I was seven years old we moved out of the city about four miles to a small house that my father built.  No long living in the city, I entered second grade at Blair School, the same country one-room school that my father had attended.  Two facts about this school are pertinent when I consider my love of Grandma Rang’s boiled raisin cake.  The school was only a quarter mile north of Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, and Winifred Larson, our school cook, resigned after my third grade year.

Mrs. Larson was a generous person and a great cook.  She was also the dietitian and nutritionist.  The food she ordered through the federal surplus commodities program turned into roast turkey, fried chicken, creamy macaroni and cheese and the most wonderful breads, cookies and cakes you can imagine.  We had dessert with every lunch, but we also ate our vegetables.  If we didn’t, Winifred made sure that we took home a note to our parents.  I don’t remember the name of her replacement, but the food quality plummeted.  The greasy hot dishes and store-bought bread quickly drove me to act.

When I asked my father if I could have lunch at Grandma and Grandpa’s, he told me that I could ask them.  I decided to ask Grandma; Grandpa was a rather formidable figure with a big mustache.  As I feared, she told me to ask Grandpa.  Later I learned that even she asked Grandpa when she wanted to invite someone for lunch.  But I was desperate, so I asked.  And Grandpa said yes.

When I told my father he said, “He did?”  I guess that Grandpas were just the same then as they are today.

Back then students had a full hour for lunch.  As I recall Grandma’s lunches were not really very special, but there was always fresh bread with homemade butter that Grandma stored in a little cage that hung in the well.  We had fried potatoes, sausage and cabbage and soup and a few times there was chicken and ham and baked beans.  But almost every day lunch ended with a big piece of Grandma’s boiled raisin cake.  With some sweet butter on top it made me feel like the luckiest kid in school.

My mother made it often too, because it was my father’s favorite cake.  It has a unique texture and flavor that I think you will enjoy.  Here is how to make it.

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup shortening

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk (or sour milk)

3 cups sifted flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. nutmeg

1/8 tsp. salt

1 cup raisins boiled in enough water to cover

Sugar to sprinkle on top of the cake

PROCEDURE:

Grease and flour a nine by thirteen-inch cake pan.  Preheat the oven to 350º.  Put the raisins in a small pan and cover them with water.  Bring them to a boil and simmer them for about a minute.  Cover the pan and turn off the heat.   

In a large bowl, cream the sugar and shortening.  Stir the egg into the sugar, then stir in the buttermilk.  Put the flour and other dry ingredients into a flour sifter and sift by thirds into the milk and sugar mixture, stirring thoroughly after each addition.  While they are still hot, pour the raisins with their water  into the batter.  Mix well and and spread the batter evenly in the pan.  Sprinkle about a tablespoon of sugar over the batter.  Bake for about 30 minutes.  Check for doneness with a toothpick inserted near the center of the cake; if it comes out clean, the cake is done.

NOTE:  If you don’t have buttermilk, put a tablespoon of vinegar in a measuring cup and fill it with whole milk.  Let it stand for five minutes and use the soured milk to make the batter.