Saturday, February 7, 2015

Betsy Challenge 18: Descriptive Foods

This challenge involves a secret. A dark secret.

My grandmother is the best cook I know. Several years ago, she took her collection of recipes and photocopied them to create a cookbook, which was given to my mother, who then made copies and gave them to me and my siblings. The book has a variety of recipes in multiple formats, from handwritten recipe cards to newspaper clippings.

My favorite recipes are those given to her at her wedding shower in 1951. They come from her mother, her aunts, and some neighbors and friends. The best of all of these is a mysterious recipe for Dark Secret, from "Grammy Hamm".

"Tastes much better than it sounds" - Challenge accepted.

Grammy Hamm is my grandmother's grandmother, Emily Spurney Hamm - this would make her my great-great grandmother. Her husband, Phillip Hamm, was an alderman in the city of Milwaukee. There is no date on the recipe in regards to where she acquired it, but it dates at least to 1951. Even though the recipe comes from Grammy Hamm, I think this recipe may have been dictated to my grandmother's Auntie Anna. She contributed many recipes to the collection, and her recipes are always neatly typed and include notes to "Patty" (my grandmother) in the chipper, helpful voice evident in this recipe.

Sarcastic comments, however, come from my grandmother's mother. You see where I get my snark.
Grammy Hamm's Dark Secret has always intrigued my family - why is it called Dark Secret? Is it, in fact, a cake? Does it actually taste better than it sounds? Perfect for The Historical Food Fortnightly, and a visit to my parents' was a good opportunity to bake the cake. So, this challenge features a special guest: Mom!

You may have noticed something about this recipe. There is no flour. Having already been through this recently, I said, "OH HECK NO I am not doing that again." So Mom and I did some research. There are several recipes on the internet for Dark Secret; all of them include flour, none of them are completely similar to the recipe above. As luck would have it, there's a recipe for date loaf in the family collection of recipes, and it called for an equal amount of flour, sugar, dates, and walnuts, with eggs and baking powder. So we decided to give it a shot. It couldn't be worse than the Washington Cake Fiasco.

 The Challenge: Descriptive Foods

The Recipe: Grammy Hamm's Dark Secret

The Date/Year and Region: 1951 (at least), Milwaukee, WI

How Did You Make It?: The recipe was fairly self-explanatory, but there are a few questionable bits. There's no explanation as to how stiff the yolks and whites need to be beaten, or how they're to be mixed in. So we beat the whites stiff, and folded them in, just to be on the safe side. We then put it in the oven for an hour and 15 minutes, as directed. After cooling, we cut it up with whipped cream.

Time To Complete: About 15 minutes to mix it up, and an hour and 15 to bake.

Total Cost: About $10.

How Successful Was It?: So...neither of us is sure whether this is a cake or not. That secret remains a secret . It's surprisingly light - both of us had assumed it would be very dense, but it's actually very fluffy light a very light egg bread with a crispy crust. Unsurprisingly, it has a deep, nutty flavor. The walnuts give it a lot of crunch, and the dates are sweet and caramelized. It is pretty rich, and I could most definitely see serving this like a trifle, cut up with whipped cream and plenty of fruit. I'd like to try it again with less flour, to see how it might change.

How Accurate Is It?: We made no changes to the recipe, and used a modern coil oven and modern tools/equipment that would have been available in 1951.


The ingredients
The beaten egg whites - so pretty!
What it looks like all mixed together

The finished product! Not dark at all.

ADDENDUM 2/9/2015: Mom went over to Grandma's house yesterday and brought her a slice. The taste test proves it - Grandma says it tastes just like the Dark Secret that her Grammy Hamm used to serve. That is kind of amazing, if you think about it - across five generations, we're tied together by the taste of an old-fashioned date-and-walnut loaf.


  1. The cooks of old assumed the person reading the recipe knew what they were doing and understood to add flour, how much and when. I know when baking bread I add 4-6 cups even if the recipe doesn't specify. The more you make a recipe, the more you get to know it and know what it takes to make it right. My grandmother's recipes are what I call fragments. Sometimes ingredients are missing and other times directions are missing. We look at her cookbooks to find the original recipe or look at other cookbooks to find a similar recipe. She kept it all in her head so writing it down was hard. The blueberry pie I made I had to watch her make and measure out everything properly to get a full recipe. Her special signature cookies she put "all the flavors you can mix."

    1. This recipe, as you can see above, is actually quite precise - rather than it being an assumption of knowledge, this was a typo that Grammy Hamm left out one ingredient. We found the similar amount in a recipe in the same collection for a date loaf that called for equal parts flour, sugar, dates and nuts.

      It's also surprising that, for being post-Fannie Farmer, it's in weights instead of volume. Almost all the other recipes from the family are by volume. This makes me wonder how old it was. I can't recall the specific date of my great-great-grandmother's birth, but I think it would have been around 1875, so who even knows where she picked up the recipe, and when.