This past July my cousins and I staged a family reunion in Nashville for our mother’s side of the family. That meant revisiting old photos, memories, and recipes of six strong women.
Reunions take a lot of work and planning to pull off. They bring surprises. And I can guarantee if you ever stage one, something wonderful will happen, too. That wonder for my sisters and myself was baking up old recipes of our mother, aunts, and grandmother for an afternoon tea at my house.
First, a Little Research
My two sisters and I asked our cousins what was the favorite cake or cookie recipe of their mothers, our aunts. I tested each of the recipes, and then for the tea we baked each recipe for sampling and placed it on the table alongside a photo of the aunt. I also created recipe cards for everyone to take home. And we baked up two cookie recipes loved by our grandmother Dee. These recipes have been in our family for three generations, going back more than 75 years.
Dee was Eliza Carr, a strong, loving and funny woman who was widowed and raised five daughters on her own. Cheese Date Cookies and Purcell’s Afternoon Teas were her two favorite cookies. The latter was a sugar cookie topped with a pecan half. Everybody loved those, and at Christmas, Dee replaced the pecan half with a red or green candied cherry.
But the date cookies were much more exotic and not appreciated as much by us children as they were by our parents. I can recall wondering why everyone gathered around the cookie tray at Thanksgiving and oogled over these cookies so much. Dates were sweet and sticky. Now, many years later, I find the combination and sweet dates, crunchy pecans and cheddar cheese to be the perfect trifecta.
For when you wrap a savory cookie dough around chopped dates and pecans, then bake until golden, you have possibly the best cookie recipe on this planet. While they are still warm you roll them in powdered sugar.
Or, if you are feeling gluttonous or lazy, just leave them plain, forgo the sugar, and serve as an appetizer with a glass of white wine. Or do half and half like the photo shows. That was the biggest surprise of this reunion: What took me so long to revisit this recipe?
Now, Ready to Bake
To make these cookies, I chose pitted dates, a whole pound-size container of them. It’s not easy to find dates at the supermarket anymore, but they are there. Look in the produce department and where the store stocks dried fruit. You will need to finely chop the dates and combine them with finely chopped pecans. This can be done a day ahead and set aside. And the dough itself can be made ahead and chilled until time to assemble.
Assembly is a little time consuming, but once you get in the rhythm you are good. The dough is rolled thinly, you cut it with a knife into squares, and then spoon on the date and pecan mixture.
Then, roll the squares up cigar-style around the filling. Do this on a lightly floured surface. Preheat the oven, bake until golden, transfer to a rack to cool, and if desired roll in powdered sugar.
What’s great about this recipe is that it makes a bunch, so you can bake and freeze them for holiday gifts ahead. And remember that ingredients do matter in this recipe. The better the cheese, the better the cookie. I used sharp shredded cheddar cheese. You could take this up a notch and use extra-sharp cheese like the Cabot aged cheddar.
Other recipes at the tea were my mother’s Chess Cake, crescent cookies, a Darn Good Chocolate Cake, and cinnamon coffee cake. Rest assured, I will share more of these great family recipes soon!