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I do a little holiday baking, but I have never attempted to make holiday candy, except for fudge. I remember my mom making divinity and date roll when I was growing up, but I never really learned to do it on my own. This year I got a hankering for the date roll I had growing up and started digging through mom’s old cookbooks looking for the recipe. Well, I found it, but it was actually just tucked into her very tattered Joy of Cooking circa 1943.
Inside an envelope that says, “It was in the electric frying pan book” I found a very old parchment-like sheet, folded into fourths with a pencil written recipe for date roll. Score! I have no idea who wrote on the front of the envelope, as it’s not my mom’s handwriting and I’m not sure who wrote out the recipe, but I’m guessing it was my grandmother. Clearly, it is very old and starting to deteriorate, so I’m really glad I found it when I did.
If you haven’t had date roll candy, it may sound odd, but it’s really good, I swear! I guess I don’t think about eating dates very often, but they’re actually pretty tasty. My mom really liked them and I remember her affinity for date shakes that she would get when we stopped off at the Date Tree, a famous road stop on California’s I-80, on our way to visit her best friend in Sacramento. While you do taste the dates in the candy, it’s also very sweet, like fudge, so it’s definitely a confection. It also has walnuts to give it some crunch. If you like fudge, you will probably like date roll.
I had to try the old recipe and see if I could make it work. Grandma’s recipe was a little vague. The list of ingredients says:
- 1 package dates (pitted)
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup broken nuts
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla
I had to assume that a package of dates in grandma’s day and a package in 2012 are probably not the same quantity. My package was 8oz. I also wondered about the milk. I use skim milk at home, but wondered if whole milk or some other variety might be better for this recipe. So I did a little internet research and found a recipe that used almost the same ingredients, but the quantities matched my 8oz package of dates, so I used those measurements instead. The other recipe also included butter, but grandma’s doesn’t. I looked at several date roll recipes and most seemed to have butter, so I figured I would go ahead and add it. I have to assume it would have been ok without it since the old recipe didn’t call for butter.
Here’s how I made it:
Following the original recipe’s instructions to “cook sugar, milk and dates until they form a soft ball in cold water (stirring while cooking)” I put the first three ingredients into a heavy saucepan and turned the heat to medium until the sugar dissolved.
I don’t know much about the rules of candy making, but fortunately I have my mother’s candy thermometer. It has lived in my utensil drawer for over 10 years now and I have never used it, so I hoped it still worked. I attached it to the pan and turned the heat up to medium high and stirred and stirred. After probably 5-7 minutes, it reached the “soft-ball” temperature on the thermometer.
Grandma’s directions then say, “Take from fire, add the nuts and vanilla and beat till very thick” so I removed the pan from the burner and added the nuts vanilla, and also the butter. I stirred it all together. It was quite thick and sticky.
Grandma then tells us to “Have ready a cold wet cloth, pour mixture onto cloth and roll up till cold.” I remember the rolled up candy in cloth in the fridge when I was a kid, so I knew what to do there, though I still don’t know why, exactly. The Hubs wondered into the kitchen when I was embarking on the project and proclaimed that he knew all about date roll, too, because his grandma made it, too. He asked if I had my cold cloth ready. I did! I ran a tea towel under very cold water, rung it out and laid it out on the counter to be ready for the rolling step. Once the candy was cooked, I carefully scooped it out of the pan onto the cloth, along the edge.
Then, I rolled it up and put it in the fridge to harden over night.
In the morning, I unrolled the snake-like affair and sliced off a piece to taste. Bingo, there it was! The familiar sweet date flavor from my childhood! Success!
Grandma’s Old-Fashioned Date Roll Candy
- 8 oz pitted dates, chopped finely
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup evaporated milk
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (pecans would also work)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- Finely chop dates. (I didn’t chop mine as finely as I should have. Some cooking spray on the knife may make it easier to chop the sticky dates.). Chop nuts and pre-measure butter and vanilla to be ready to add when it’s time.
- Run very cold water over a tea towel or other thin cloth, ring most of the water out and then lay out on the counter.
- Place dates, sugar and evaporated milk into a heavy saucepan and turn heat to medium. Stir until sugar dissolves, then increase heat to medium high heat. Stir constantly until temperature reaches the soft-ball stage. (If you don’t have a candy thermometer, here’s a resource for determining soft-ball stage).
- Remove from heat, then add the butter, nuts and vanilla. Stir until well combined.
- Quickly scoop the mixture out of the pan onto the edge of the cloth, forming about a two inch log. Roll the log up in the cloth and place into the fridge to harden.
- Unwrap the candy and slice to desired thickness.