Saturday, October 9, 2010

Both my grandmothers were amazing bakers, but my paternal grandmother stands out the most.

To me, as a young child, Grandma Irma, always donning a handmade apron, towered over the kitchen. She worked her magic in the mixing bowls – taking a dash of this and a pinch of that. My dad recently told me his mother always “knew the ingredients by how they felt.” She was from that generation.

I remember Grandma Irma making pies, breads, cookies and cakes. But in her small Iowa town, she was known best for her homemade cinnamon rolls. She would make numerous pans of cinnamon rolls and take them to church bake sales or just give them away to friends and neighbors. I always remember the kitchen smelling like butter and cinnamon when we would visit.

Me with Grandpa Arnold and Grandma Irma
Unfortunately, Grandma Irma died when I was about 10 years old. I missed learning all her secret tricks and wise wisdom in the kitchen. Over the years, I often think of grandma when I’m busy in my own kitchen. Maybe she’s partly why I chose the profession I did. Hopefully, she’s looking out for me.

When I visited my parents in Nebraska this summer, I was lucky enough to discover a yellowing notebook of about 20 handwritten recipes by Grandma Irma. The small book was tucked away with my mother’s cookbooks on a shelf. Jackpot!

How did I not know about this? All these years, I thought only one of her recipes for “lebkuchen” remained. We make her version of German lebkuchen – a strong anise and molasses flavored bar dusted with powdered sugar – during the holidays every year.

But now I can make some of Grandma Irma’s other baked delights.

The other day I found myself looking through the tattered book. I wanted to bake. Most of the recipes have little or no directions, just a list of ingredients. I found a recipe using dates and oatmeal that sounded good. I’ve seen plenty of Turkish dates at the markets here.

A box of Turkish oatmeal
The recipe is fairly easy. The top and bottom layers of the bars reminded me of what you put on top of a “crisp dessert" such as an apple or peach crisp. Just mix the dry ingredients with the butter until you get little clumps. I find it easiest just to use my hands for this step.

The middle layer is a puree of sorts made from boiling dates with water. I have to apologize to Grandma Irma as I didn’t grab enough dates at the store and had to add dried cranberries and apricots to the mixture too. Next time, I’ll write my shopping list a little better.

While the bars were baking in my oven, I swear it almost smelled like grandma’s cinnamon rolls or oatmeal cookies. I wish grandma were here so we could enjoy the bars together while drinking Turkish tea.

Grandma’s Oatmeal-Date Bars
1-9x13 metal baking pan
Oat layer:
2          c.         oatmeal
1 ¾      c.         All-purpose flour
1          c.         brown sugar
1          tsp.      baking soda
1 ½      tsp.      cinnamon, ground
½         tsp.      salt
8          oz.       butter, room temperature

16        oz.       dates, cut small (my ratio was 8 oz. dates, 4 oz. dried cranberries and 4 oz. dried apricots)
1          c.         granulated sugar
1          c.         water

1          c.         walnuts, chopped small

1. In a small pot, combine the dates (or other dried fruits), sugar and water. Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered. Stir frequently until the mixture is thickened, about 5 minutes. (Off the heat, I used an immersion blender to puree the dried fruits into a smoother mixture.)

2. Transfer the date puree to a bowl to cool. (I placed my glass bowl in the freezer for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time.)

3. In a large bowl, combine the oatmeal, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, baking soda and butter. Stir together until medium-sized clumps form.
4. Take half of this mixture and pat down to create the bottom layer of the bars in a 9 x 13 baking pan, previously coated with nonstick cooking spray or butter. Chill for 5 minutes.
5. Carefully, spread the date mixture, using an offset spatula or rubber spatula, over the bottom layer.
6. Then, add the remaining oat mixture on top and press firmly.
7. Sprinkle the walnuts on top.

8. Bake the bars at 350 F. for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned.
9. Let cool. Cut the bars into small squares.
10. Enjoy the bars with a cup of coffee or tea. They make a great treat for breakfast!

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Amy Baker said...

OH Joy! My grandma Lona (my dad's mom) was a bake-by-feel gal too! Your post brought back lots of memories of watching her pinch and scoop and level with her little arthritic magic hands. She was a professional baker her whole adult life at Safeway grocery stores. And her last name was Baker. How about that? :) Love your blog, friend.

Ang said...

Hey there! What a great post. I had the pleasure of going to your grandfather's house a number of times, and even after your grandmother had passed away years earlier, I swear, it still smelled like oatmeal and cinnamon. Love the picture. Your grandfather looked exactly the same for so many years! I have great memories of that house. xoxo-Ang

Danielle said...

These sound delicious! Thanks for the recipe Joy!

Hopeful said...

Hi Joy,
I am loving your blog. It's great to hear about your travels abroad as well as your love of cooking. I've been reading all along since you started but decided to post today because my grandma and I were just talking yesterday about her baking. Surprisingly, she said she thinks her cinnamon rolls are the baking she is best at. I've never had one or at least I don't remember. I remember her for other things like date pinwheel cookies, banana, zuchini, and pumpkin bread or her peanut butter kiss cookies. Regardless, I just wanted to say thanks for writing the blog and your grandma's recipes sound delish!
Sarah K.