My mother, formerly a really terrific and imaginative cook, has given up cooking for reasons I don't entirely understand. She has not, however, given up food , although she no longer reads cookbooks in bed, like novels, a trait she has passed on to me, and to my daughter. My mother has retained a strong interest in the food category of cookies and other things to have with your tea.
Never much of a baker herself, and not liking things too sweet, she nonetheless craves a certain sort of adult-type homemade cookie or biscuit. I try to bring her some when I come to visit and to take her out walking. She is politely grateful for my madeleines and shortbreads, and adores the gorgeously arranged, delicious cookies her grandaughter sends. But she waxes especially nostalgic about a very nice bar cookie, called "Chinese Chews" (there is nothing chinese about them, I guess they just seemed exotic in the fifties in England). She used to make them sometimes herself, from a recipe she got from her older sister, my Auntie Louie. They were always scarfed up when she served them.
These cannot have been a childhood treat, her WWII child-of-rationing past wouldn't square with the quantities of butter. My best guess is that she probably got the recipe from her sister during our 1957 visit, when my parents took out a loan so that she could take my brother and me to see the family for the summer. Such a trip was a much bigger deal then- it took 12 hours each way on a TWA 4 engine prop plane. Later, she and my father were able to go every summer- for awhile, they even had their own cottage there.
Anyhow, the recipe was typewritten (both my mother and my aunt had been secretaries,and had their own Underwoods, the kind with keys on stilts that I couldn't depress with one finger to save my life. My mother could type like lightening on this sort of thing, when she worked for George Weidenfeld at the BBC in the forties.) The recipe was filed, along with certain other loose recipes, in my mother's copy of the New York Times Cookbook. To my dismay, this copy got lost in the shuffle several years back, when we helped my parents move to their assisted living apartment, while my father was very sick, shortly before he died.
So we have made it a bit of a project, my mother and I , to reconstruct the recipe for these cookies. I tried countless recipes of the same name, various other types of date and nut bars, and I made things up. Close, but no cigar. She carefully tasted each one, always saying they were very good, but did not have quite the same flavor. She was right, there was something different. She was pretty sure there were no exotic ingredients involved. I have to say, I was getting kind of obsessed and frustrated. Then one day, I found this recipe- sized up for institutional food service, on a site about school lunches. The key was: el cheapo pressed dates! I made them, and they were the thing, absolutely. They were also tasty and satisfying. At this point, though, I can't tell you if they are actually special in any kind of disinterested way. I can tell you they are our Chinese Chews on the nose. This recipe makes about a million cookies; I almost always halve it:
1 lb butter
3 cups sugar
1 tbsp vanilla
4 cups flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 cups walnuts, toasted and chopped coarsely
2 pkgs pressed dates
Preheat oven to 350. Butter 2 sheet pans. Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla and eggs and mix well. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Mix well again. Cut the dates up with scissors or break into smallish bits with a cool hand. Add the nuts and dates and fold in gently, trying not to totally smear in the dates. You are aiming for an even distribution, but are not creaming them in like butter. Bake about 35 minutes, until a broomstraw in the middle comes out clean. This could take longer, depending on the size of your baking sheet. Remove from oven and set on a rack to cool. While still warm, sift the confectioner's sugar over the top. When cool, cut into bars and serve.
Okay, you caught me. The nuts were not toasted in the original. But almost all baked goods with nuts in are, in my opinion, improved if you freshly toast the nuts before adding. You just put them single layered on a baking sheet, and put them in a moderate oven until they start to smell good. There is some magic effect here, which cannot be denied. My mother agrees that they are even better when I do this.