‘One of the Housekeeper’s Necessaries’

Marmee 4I am named after my great-grandmother, Clara, whose parents emigrated from a small village in southern Germany to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1870s. She looks genteel in this photo but her family supported itself with the rough-and-tumble Black Cat Whiskey brand.


Here’s more about the family’s history in Ohio:


Nobody in the family remembers Clara as a cook but I found a few recipes that she scrawled inside her copy of Aunt Babette’s Cook Book. Clara moved to Richmond, Virginia around 1890 to marry my great-grandfather, whose family came from the same village in Germany. The cookbook, originally published in 1889 by the Bloch company of Cincinnati, reflected the tastes of newly assimilated American Jews. Babette explained how to make Purim cookies on one page and trayf (non-Kosher) lobster salad on another. Since Clara never kept Kosher, this book appealed to her so much that she called it “one of the housekeeper’s necessaries” in a note inside the front cover.

Reclaiming Clara’s handwritten recipes turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. “Sand Cake” calls for 1 lb. butter, 1 lb. sugar, 1½ lbs. flour, 3 raw eggs, 4 hard boiled yolks, cinnamon & brandy. That’s it! No directions. When her recipes did include a bit more information, the stained pages sometimes made key words illegible.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the “Date Torte” I tried turned out like no torte I’ve ever eaten. The ingredients fit the definition of torte in the Food Lover’s Companion as a cake made with little or no flour but ground nuts or breadcrumbs, eggs, sugar, and flavoring. But my torte stuck to the pan and crumbled when I cut it. Oh, well. My husband and I dug our portions out of the pan with spoons and found it a tasty, if gooey, combination of dates and nuts. Here I served an extremely misshapen slice on doily she crocheted.

Marmee Date Torte 1

I’ve written up the work of two Claras, but I welcome suggestions about how to improve the next batch.

Clara Ullman’s Date Torte

Makes 1 (9-inch) torte


1 cup sugar

1 cup dates

1 cup English walnuts

3 eggs, beaten separately

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon baking powder



No directions

Adapted recipe:

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup pitted, chopped dates (about 6 ounces)

1 cup roughly chopped English walnuts or pecans (about 4 ounces)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch pie plate or round baking pan.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk (electric mixers probably hadn’t been invented yet so that’s why I used the whisk)(also, her original instruction of eggs “beaten separately” probably means separate the eggs and beat the yolks and the whites separately, but I thought of that after I already made the torte)

3. Add the sugar and continue whisking until light and fluffy. Stir in the vanilla.

4. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir into the egg mixture.

5. Stir in the dates and nuts (I used pecans because that’s what I had in my pantry).

6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes until golden on top. (At this point it was still raw inside so I turned down the oven to 325 degrees and baked it for 5 minutes more. Then I turned the oven off and let it sit inside for 10 minutes).

7. Let cool before slicing into wedges for serving.


About heritagerecipebox

I am named after my great-grandmother, who only prepared two dishes, according to anyone who remembers. Somehow I ended up with a cooking gene that I brought with me from Richmond, Virginia to my current home in Boston, Massachusetts. I have worked as a journalist and published three cookbooks plus a memoir and a novel. This blog gives me a chance to share family recipes and other American recipes with a past.
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1 Response to ‘One of the Housekeeper’s Necessaries’

  1. What a beautiful tribute. Things are so much more meaningful when you find a tradition or heritage behind it, huh?


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