Expansive as it is, there are a few major recipes missing from Nonnie’s cookbook — things I keep going back and looking for, only to be surprised all over when I realize again that they’re not there.
There’s no simple roast chicken recipe, for instance, even though I know Nonnie must’ve roasted billions of birds in her day. (Maybe it’s not in there because Nonnie thought only a moron would need to follow a recipe in order to roast a chicken — “just turn the oven on and stick it in! You need me to draw you a map?”) There’s no kugel, either, although Nonnie made an ethereal noodle pudding that my mom’s been trying to recreate for 40 years. To this day, she swears it never comes out like Nonnie’s did.
There’s also no chocolate chip cookie. Or peanut butter cookie. Or most cookies, for that matter. Banana bread notwithstanding, Nonnie’s baked goods tend to be elaborate showpieces rather than humble, everyday treats. Maybe she didn’t focus on cookies because she wanted my mother to try harder in the kitchen.
That said, Nonnie’s brief cookie section does feature one variety I’d never heard of: Polka Daters, a basic dough punched up with dates, nuts, and — yes! — chocolate chips.
It’s an old-school dessert that seems to have fallen out of fashion since the 20th century. At least, its name has; Googling “polka daters” fetches just 151 results, a lot of which are recipes from old newspapers. The oldest one I found was published in 1945. It’s basically the same as Nonnie’s, except with two whole cups of chocolate chips. Clearly, I should’ve listened to Mrs. Judy Hanna of Adrian, Maryland instead of my grandmother on this one.
Polka Daters; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 1/4 cup (8 oz.) dates, chopped
1 cup butter, softened [Yes, a full cup. Two sticks. How Nonnie’s arteries held out for so long, I’ll never know.]
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten [Beating them before adding them to the batter is a great way to dirty up extra dishes!]
1/2 cup chopped nuts [I went with walnuts, but I bet pecans would be good too]
1 3/4 cup sifted flour
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chocolate chips
[You may notice, as I did right about now, that there’s no salt listed in this recipe. That’s almost certainly a mistake; if I were to do it all over again, I’d add a teaspoon with the dry ingredients.]
Mix dates and 1 cup hot water together. Cool. [Meditate on how gross the mixture looks, like a bowlful of wet bugs. Are you hungry yet?]
Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs. Beat. Sift flour and baking soda, and gradually blend this into sugar and egg mixture. [Don’t have a sifter, because you’re an urban, unmarried 20-something who hasn’t yet conned her friends and family into buying her a bunch of space-hogging kitchen stuff she doesn’t need? Do as I did and jerry-rig one out of a fine-mesh strainer. Looks janky, but it gets the job done.]
Stir in date mixture, vanilla, and chocolate bits into batter. [Read recipe again, confused, trying to determine whether you’re really supposed to plop in the dates without draining them. Look up “polka daters” online to see if other recipes also recommend this; they do. Date water goes in. Gulp.
Also confirm that this is clearly not enough chocolate — even though you purposefully measured a generous half-cup.]
Spread batter in greased 9″x13″ baking pan. [I greased with grapeseed oil spray, because I couldn’t stomach the thought of more butter.]
Top with nuts. [Recipes with higher chocolate chip counts recommend topping with another half cup of chocolate chips during this stage; I’d do that next time, especially since the dates and chips I did add all sank to the bottom of the bars.)
Bake in 350 oven for 30 minutes. [Mine needed an extra five before a tester came out clean.] Cool and cut into bars.
The verdict: Before I actually started assembling this recipe, I was expecting it to yield something dense and rich — like blondies, I imagined, except with fruit where the extra chocolate chips should be.
I was wrong. Polka Daters probably shouldn’t have been listed under “cookies” at all — my “cookies” had a texture closer to banana bread than brownies, with dates subbing in for the bananas themselves. Maybe I can blame the dates’ soaking liquid. It made for a loose batter that cooks up fluffy rather than heavy; not bad at all, but not what I thought it’d be. Oh, and buttery. Really buttery. The kind of buttery that leaves your fingers coated with a thin film of grease.
Not that anyone at our break fast was complaining. (Oh yeah: I baked on Yom Kippur. Where is my medal?) There was way too much food there, as is tradition, but people still ate the Polka Daters — including our hosts, Sally and Dan, who gave the cookies/bars/cake/butter delivery service two thumbs up.
Actually, I’ll let Dan have the last word on them: “My official book jacket blurb for last night’s dessert: The day after Yom Kippur, there were literally nine types of dessert in my house, and I opted to eat this instead. And I would do it again if I could.”