Monday, November 12, 2007

Searching for Maida Heatter.

Very, very close.

Maida Heatter was the 1980s version of - well, I guess her closest approximation today would be David Lebovitz. She wrote what seemed to be a million dessert books, all with extremely detailed recipes she made up while she was working in her husband's restaurant in Boca or Palm Beach or some tony place in Florida. But for all her ubiquity at the time, I can't seem to find any of her books at my local libraries today (my own copies are probably buried in one of my myriad storage spaces). This is extremely frustrating, because I really wanted her Pumpkin Date Nut Bread recipe.

I remember first reading it in Maida's Best, Newest Dessert Recipes of All Time (not the title, but it was something like that) and being entranced by the circumstances under which she first found this pumpkin bread: she sampled it at a buffet in California which also featured fresh cracked crab and a string bean salad. Now I ask you, is that a West Coast menu or is that a West Coast menu? Seafood and string beans AND a sweet bread! Weirdly great, as if it were something out of some old '60s issue of Sunset Magazine, that bastion of pounded abalone, luaus and Guys' Galley (I just typed Goys' Galley, which isn't far off). Bleah, but also, yum.

Anyway, every other pumpkin bread recipe I've found recently turns out some awful pallid orangey loaf, and not the dark, spicy, damp thing Maida concocted. So -- I messed around with a couple of recipes I used to make in my catering days, and I came up with this. As with Maida's late lamented loaves, this recipe must be made the day or night before you plan to serve it. It sounds like a bit of work, but is really only measuring and dumping. You can measure, can't you?

Mess around with the amount or type of spices if you want, but please be sure your spices are fresh. And please PLEASE use your own cut up dates and not those horrible hard whitish date nubs they sell at the supermarket. It is very easy to cut up the dates with scissors for this recipe - for example, I did mine while watching my sweet blond Southern gardener boyfriend P. Allen Smith on my Tifaux. It was sort of soothing, actually.

(as close to Maida Heatter’s recipe as I can get)

4 eggs

2 cups brown sugar, packed

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup molasses

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tasteless vegetable oil (I use peanut, but use what you have – anything except olive, of course)

1/3 cup water

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 15 oz. can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)

3-3/4 cups sifted all purpose flour

2 teaspoons soda

¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1-1/2 to 2 cups moist pitted dates (cut up a bunch with scissors, then measure)

1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped (optional, but I think it’s better with them)

Note: This must be made the day or night before you plan to serve it. Trust me. If you try to cut it the day you make it, it will crumble into unattractive (if still tasty) gobs. You will only be able to slice it the next day.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray two large loaf pans (at least 5-1/2" by 9-1/2" each) with nonstick cooking spray. I line the bottoms with parchment paper cut to fit (just place the pan on parchment paper, trace around the bottom with a pencil and cut out). Set aside.

In a medium sized bowl, toss together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. In a large bowl, beat eggs with whisk until just broken up. Whisk in brown sugar, granulated sugar, molasses, oil, water, vanilla and pumpkin, stirring just to mix. Add flour mixture all at once and stir just to combine thoroughly – don’t over-mix (batter will look slightly lumpy). Fold in cut-up dates and walnuts (if used).

Pour batter into prepared pans and level the tops with a spatula, offset or otherwise. Bake for 30 minutes, then using an oven mitt, turn pans back to front. Bake again for 15 minutes; at the end of this time check breads and if they are browning too fast, cover pans loosely with foil. Continue to bake for another 10 to 15 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the center of each loaf comes out mostly clean, with just a few moist crumbs sticking to it, and the top springs back when touched. This is the time my oven takes to bake one 12"x4-1/2" pan and one 5-1/2"x9-1/2" pan -- your baking time may vary, more or less.

Remove pans from oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn breads out carefully onto a wire rack, or, if you can’t be bothered with that, onto a cardboard cake board or other serving plate, turning right side up very carefully (cover with another plate or rack and invert). Cool thoroughly; wrap tightly in plastic wrap and allow to mellow at room temperature or in the refrigerator until the next day. Then and only then may you unwrap them and slice them with a serrated knife into perfect, clean slices. Eat plain, or with soft sweet butter or plain cream cheese.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

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