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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Grandma Betty's Picnic Cake

My mom made this cake often when our family went on one of our frequent picnics in the mountains. The term picnic cake appears to refer to any cake without frosting since it can transport so easily. In this case the topping of brown sugar, walnuts, and chocolate chips makes a frosting completely unnecessary. This is a plus as far as I'm concerned.

My mom's recipe came from her gas company, Mountain Fuel Supply which along with many natural gas supply companies of the 20th century employed "home economists" to create and test recipes for their customers. When the transition was made from wood burning stoves to gas, some cooks found the change difficult so these specialists were originally hired to help them. They did much to educate the public on how to cook before the job was taken over by celebrity cooks. Of course, the point was to acquire more customers and encourage them to use more natural gas, just like a recipe on the back of an oatmeal box or a cocoa container exists to increase consumption. The original recipe even instructs cooks to bake it in a gas oven! 



Grandma Betty's Picnic Cake

Source: a recipe Betty found at her local gas utility (Mountain Fuel Supply Co.), attributed to Jeanne Fenton, a home economist at the company
Makes a 9X13 pan

Changes for my altitude of nearly 5,000 feet:
baking soda with soaking dates--3/4 teas
subtract 2 T sugar
total of 1 7/8 c flour (or 1 3/4 plus 2 T)
baking soda with dry ingredients--1/2 teas
1 teas of vanilla

The following is the recipe as it appears on the dog-eared handout left in my mom's recipe box. I'm not sure if this recipe will work at sea level since I only remember it being baked at about 4500.

1 c finely chopped dates

1 1/2 c boiling water
1 teas baking soda

1 c sugar
1/2 c softened butter, softened
2 beaten large eggs
1/2 teas vanilla
1 1/2 c plus 3 T flour
1 teas cinnamon
1/2 teas baking soda
1/4 teas salt

for the topping:

3/4 c brown sugar
3/4 c chocolate chips, semi sweet or dark
3/4 c chopped walnuts (or whatever nuts you have)

Pour the boiling water over the dates and baking soda and stir. Allow to cool and proceed with the rest of the recipe.

Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare a 9X13 pan or two 8X8 pans with oil and flour. 

Cream the butter and the sugar together until creamy. Add the eggs and the vanilla mix well. Sift together the dry ingredients and add to the creamed mixture alternating with the dates and the soaking liquid.

Pour the batter into the pan. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the batter. You can either sprinkle each ingredient separately or you can mix them together and then sprinkle. I will choose the method that makes the fewest dishes to wash.

Place the pan into the oven and bake for around 40 minutes. Cool and serve.

Note on altitude: 

Altitudes kept me from cooking this recipe for a long time. Even though my mom's altitude was only 500 feet different than mine currently, I had to make adjustments for success. Most of the time 500 feet doesn't make much difference. I can't quite figure this out and wish I could visit several altitudes and test the cake. The fact that the original recipe has an odd addition of 3 T flour leads me to believe that test cooks used a sea level recipe and added the extra to adjust the recipe for a higher altitude. Wish I could find Jeanne Fenton and ask her. 


  1. You can come "try" this beautiful cake at my altitude!
    My mom made a cake similar to this, except used peanuts instead of walnuts and I
    don't believe the recipe called for dates.

  2. I'd love to come try it and maybe we should compare peanuts to walnuts. Someday we'll be able to do it.