Date cake: a church lady’s pride

New recipes come from all kinds of sources: this, I found on Facebook.

The other week, a friend of mine who lives in Tennessee posted pictures from a fish fry where she also said they’d had “church lady cakes”. I had to find out what these were. They were not cakes made from ladies who go to church, rather cakes made by such ladies. Specifically, they are special cake recipes shared on Sunday, often then compiled into cookery books. There were photos from one recipe book my friend has had for a long time. And there, in the middle of the page, was date cake, an intriguing concoction of dates, flour and sugar that I had to try. I’m very glad that I did.

Date cake: moist, rich and very, very more-ish.

Date cake: moist, rich and very, very more-ish.

I read the recipe through several times, then thought, gleefully, “it’s fat-free!”. It is, there is no denying that. Don’t think that the inclusion of fruit and the lack of fat makes it a virtuous bake: it’s still a cake. When I made the batter, I wondered if maybe I should have used brown sugar instead of golden. I wanted a dark cake and the batter was pale. That sorted itself out in the cooking. What went in to the oven as almost as pale as a normal sponge, what came out was the colour of caramel. You could add spices, I don’t think it needs it.

I found two types of dried dates in my local super-market: one that’s whole, plump and juicy, one that’s chopped into pieces and dry. I used the former but, suspecting that the latter was what the original recipe was made with, reduced the amount of hot water to avoid an overly wet batter. I chopped the dated with a pair of scissors and used an electric whisk to ensure that I mushed them as much as possible in the batter making process.

Soaking dates, chopping nuts, batter, and finally, the cake.

Soaking dates, chopping nuts, batter, and finally, the cake.

The final result is dense, sticky and very yummy. It’s not overly sweet, the edges chewy, the centre like soft toffee. If you wanted to serve this as a dessert, with lashings of hot caramel sauce and ice cream, I don’t think anyone would be upset with you.

Join with me and tip your hat to the church ladies! At some point, I will also try the fruit cocktail cake, which sounds delightfully eccentric.

Date cake
Preparation time
Cooking time
Total time
A sticky and rich cake that isn't too sweet but very satisfying with a cup of tea or coffee.
Recipe type: Cake
Cuisine: American
Serves: 8-16
  • 2 cups dates (pitted, cut into smaller pieces if whole to begin with)
  • 1.5-2 cups boiling water (more for dry dates, less for juicy ones)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence (or to taste)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup nuts, roughly chopped (a mixture works well: walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, even peanuts)
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
  2. Put the dates in a bowl and pour over the water. Stir and let cool.
  3. Add the other ingredients, one by one, stirring thoroughly after each (I used an electric whisk).
  4. Prepare the cake tin: butter or spray with cake release, unless you have a silicon tin. This is one sticky cake!
  5. Pour the batter into a 23cm cake tin. If the batter reaches almost to the top, that's OK because it doesn't rise all that much.
  6. Put it in the oven and leave for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Here, you need to keep your nerve and not open the oven as the scents of caramelising sugar spreads through the kitchen and you start worrying about the cake burning. Open the oven door and the cake collapses. It's still tasty, just much flatter in the middle than at the sides.
  7. When done, take the cake out and let cool before cutting.
  8. Serves 8-16, depending on greed. Freezes well (and defrosts almost instantly because of the sugar content).


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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.


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  3. Read this recipe and it reinforces that an awful lot of baking in N America comes from Scottish Women’s Guild recipes.
    Compare. Glasgow Cookery Book…known in our family as dough school book…essential for all basics

    Date and Walnut loaf.

    Love all you do

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