CAPTIONS: Donna holds the page with Katherine Sherwood's Date Swirls recipe and Pat Buell with her mother's Date Swirl Cookies. Katherine made the cookies for six decades. Lower left, the McClellan women's vegetable soup, and bottom right, old-fashioned macaroni salad. All these recipes are in That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland.
There is a trend throughout certain fictional novels to product-place the mention of recipes into story lines, followed by those recipes at the end of the chapters or of the books. I enjoy this approach because it adds another dimension to a story. The reader gets a taste, as well as is able to physically become a part of the action, by preparing and enjoying those recipes.
So while writing my first novel, Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast, it wasn’t long before I knew I would “season” my tale with special recipes. It was a natural fit for a book about a bed-and-breakfast. But what to include?
The three signature dishes in that book came from my mother and two of my best friends. My mom’s spice cake is probably a 150-year-old recipe, an old-fashioned eggless, milkless and butterless treat also known as a "Depression Cake" that hailed from her mother.
The cake was part of every special occasion during all the years my mother baked. Growing up, I knew that waking up on a Saturday morning to the distinctive scent of that cake baking, I knew a holiday or pitch-in or company were on tap.
The granola recipe was adapted from The Best granola I have ever eaten, which came from friend Gay Kirkton, and to Gay from her mother Betty Greenwood, and from Betty’s friend to her. That’s how recipes go, and they tend to evolve from person-to-person. The funny thing is that granola is a favorite of a particular group of my friends who think of it as Donna’s granola. I was delighted to get both Betty’s and Gay’s permission to reprint the recipe.
The sugar cookies, which were mentioned numerous times in the first book as Sweetland’s signature sweet, came from my friend Patti Broshar-Foust, who treasures that recipe from her Aunt Martha. Those cookies have been a big topic inside our friendship and were even baked by Patti and decorated by me for son and daughter-in-law Sam and Allison’s bridal shower.
So, having fictionally used three terrific recipes in the first book, the time came to decide what to serve up in That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland. In a previous blog, we unpacked in detail food writer (as well as upcoming cookbook author) Blaise Doubman’s delicious Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie.
I also knew I wanted to use the recipe given to me by Brian’s Aunt Wilma for the vegetable-beef soup that all the McClellan women, including my late mother-in-law, made and I still enjoy serving in cold weather.
Included is my own Simple Chicken Salad – which people seem to like for its, well, simplicity, but would be easy to embellish with veggies and or grapes to suit more complex taste buds.
I also included my mother’s macaroni salad, which I have always thought was the best of its kind. Sure enough, at a book club discussion, where the food of book two was served, one of the readers made this dish and said her husband declared it the same.
But there was one more recipe that I really wanted to include. It was for a type of cookie that I have thought about my entire life, but, ironically, seldom actually tasted. It was the date-nut swirl cookies I remembered from my childhood.
The cookies came into my life from farm wife, family friend and neighbor Katherine Sherwood. I can still picture that sweet woman standing at the top of her long country lane handing off a plate of the goodies as a Christmas treat for my dad, who was a farmer-school bus driver.
They were delicious. All these years later, eve my brother, Tim, remembers them as tasty besides.
Turns out, so does everyone who knew Katherine. As with my mother and her spice cake, with Patti and her Aunt Martha’s Sugar Cookies, and as with Gay and Betty’s granola, the date-nut swirls were Katherine’s specialties.
I spotted the recipe in an old Brownsville United Methodist Church cookbook and with Katherine having passed on, the right thing to do would be contact her daughter, Pat, who is still active in the church and community. First, I wrote her a letter and asked for permission. Some weeks passed and the mail didn’t bring a response. I was nervous.
Finally, I summoned the courage to call her and Pat hadn’t realized she hadn’t mailed a response. SURE, she told me. Not only could I use the recipe but she said her mother would have been thrilled.
I was elated. The recipe is in the book, along with a “must-do” tip. Pat said no matter what, be sure to use black walnuts in the recipe. She recalled how her mother hand-gathered and hulled walnuts from their rural Indiana woods for the precious nut meats.
To use English walnuts in this recipe would be a sacrilege, Pat explained. She said these cookies have been all over the world as they made their way by mail from Katherine to servicemen abroad.
Fast forward to last Sunday. The Brownsville United Methodist Church invited me to give a book talk following a pitch-in lunch. I brought Blaise’s sugar cream pie (which is fabulous, I might add) and meatloaf the way mom made it (simply ground beef with oats, onion, eggs and ketchup). I hoped that Pat would do the very thing she did: bring the famous cookies.
Turns out it was only the second time she had made them as she said there was no way they could be as good as her mother’s.
They went like hotcakes.
Pat made them with candied cherries, which she recalls her mom adding for the holidays. Others at church Sunday commented that they didn’t remember them with the candied fruit. I don’t either.
But one thing I know for sure. These cookies taste exactly as I remember. They are fantastic. So if you make them, remember that tip to use the black walnuts. Those give them their distinctive flavor. The cookies are soft and chewy on the insight with a crispy crunch on the outside.
It’s fun to share these truly hometown, tried-and-true recipes with readers. In a novel way, of course.