I wrote this piece for a food writing course at JMU, and then adapted some of it for a newspaper article about cookie exchanges. Date Nut Pinwheels are my absolute favorite Christmas cookie, for they are soft, subtly sweet and sentimental. I hope you enjoy.
Dozens of tins cover the wooden table in the dining room at my Aunt Margot’s house. The unlabeled tins, stacked on top of one another, beg to be opened so we can see — and sample — what’s inside. Every year, we see many of the same types of Christmas cookies: crunchy peanut butter topped with criss-crosses; hard biscotti from my Sicilian uncle; bite-sized “world peace” made with rich chocolate; chocolate chip, simple but familiar; almond cookies drizzled with chocolate; Mexican wedding cakes dusted with powdered sugar. Every branch of the Thisdell family brings an assortment of cookies for the piles to grow, and after we are all done snacking for the few days in town, we fill up our own tins to take home the fruits of the season. But despite the variety, there’s only one kind I yearn for year after year: date nut pinwheels.
“A what?” friends ask, skeptical of anything with the unfamiliar dried fruit. But date nut pinwheels have been at the root of the Thisdell Christmas Cookie Exchange for as long as I can remember. Just like the holidays wouldn’t be the same without my twenty-some relatives, Christmas wouldn’t be right without the pinwheels.
Grandpa Bob used to make most, if not all, of the dozens of cookies. He would spend the weeks leading up to December 25 in his cabin’s small kitchen, measuring and stirring, rolling and slicing, baking and tasting, everything to make sure the cookies were just right. He made my favorites — which I later learned were possibly the most time-consuming and demanding of all the cookies — around Thanksgiving, because even as they aged in their tins, a chewiness took the place of the softness; weeks can go by before these cookies actually start to stale.
Because Bob and Gloria lived about three hours away in Stanardsville, in an A-frame cabin they built years ago on Thisdell Trace, my family always makes the drive to see my dad’s side of the family on Christmas afternoon. After the surprisingly relaxing chaos of the morning subsides — bows and wrapping paper scraps in the trash, our stomachs full of breakfast casserole, the ultimate once-a-year gooey cinnamon rolls and fresh fruit salad — my family packs up our Honda minivan.
Robert Arthur Thisdell was born in 1923 in the little town of Marinette in northern Wisconsin. When war came, like everyone else, he headed off to volunteer. He started as a quartermaster caring for provisions and logistics, but he told his supervisor he wasn’t a good cook and this wasn’t what he should be doing, my dad recalled to me. He transferred to the infantry. He landed in Normandy two weeks after D-Day, fought heavily in the Battle of the Bulge and was promoted to sergeant. My dad said this was because after kicking in a door, with machine gun in hand, he was adept at making that split-second decision to shoot or not. Months of digging fox holes during the middle of winter and then advancing to the enemy’s line took a toll on him; I never heard him talk much about the war. Two Bronze Starts, three injuries, and a Purple Heart later, he was headed back to America.
With a new wife and kids on the way, the GI Bill let him get a business degree and then a master’s from the University of Wisconsin. After that, the family was on the move. Grandma said they lived in 10 different houses during their marriage, with the longest residency in Newport News. That’s where my dad grew up, the last of six children. Then, finally, retirement offered a chance to do several things. He wanted to develop a perfect crab cake. He wanted to develop a collection of perfect cookie recipes. And of course, he wanted to travel, but not in July and August because we had to pick crabs at the beach (for his perfect crab cake), and not in December because he had to make cookies.
Grandma Gloria, always ready to talk for hours on end with hands busy knitting hats and hats and more hats, mailed me a handwritten copy of the date nut pinwheel recipe a few years ago. She was passing off all the cookie-making duties to family members knowing Bob couldn’t handle it anymore. His worsening Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s made him lose track of where he was in the recipe.
The recipe had step after step, and it looked like a lot more work than I ever realized. First the buttery dough has to be made and refrigerated overnight in three or four balls, then the date filling with chopped nuts and sugar has to be cooked on the stove and cooled. After the dough is rolled out over the countertop, you spread on the unusually thick filling, taking care not to tear the thin dough; years later, I still can’t do it quite right, but you can’t tell at the end. Each piece is rolled into a log, again refrigerated for a few hours, sliced into quarter-inch pieces and finally baked. It’s at least a two-day process.
I don’t know when or why Grandpa started making these cookies, they have just always been in our family. Only just recently did another friend say her grandmother makes these every year, too. I found online that Betty Crocker’s old “Cooky Book” includes a similar recipe for a caramel dough pinwheel with a date filling option. Named the best cooky of 1940-1945, the description said that the war effort simplified baking since women now had to work outside the home. The book claims that refrigerator cookies such as this were popular because the “dough could be mixed one day, sliced and baked the next.” I don’t know necessarily if these cookies could ever be called simple, but the work is definitely worth it.
The first time I made the cookies, my family realized that when straight from the oven, the warm pinwheels were moist and sweet like breakfast rolls, since they had the caramel and nut flavors. Grandpa Bob was probably the only person to ever eat them fresh before, and I was curious what he would think, if he would approve of these cookies made by hands other than his own frail ones. “These are very good,” he said, delicately biting into a cookie after dinner. The next year, the year he didn’t remember who I was, I saw him standing in the dining room, cookie in hand, smiling. He died a week before Christmas in 2009, during one of the huge snowfalls that winter.
The holidays were different that year, and every year since, as cousins have grown up, married, moved and started families, and even our gift-giving traditions have changed. But what’s always the same is the overflowing plate of cookies passed around while opening our embroidered stockings that hang on the banister in order by age. I always go for the date nut pinwheels first.
Obviously, looks don’t matter. As long as most of the dough survives and the filling is relatively even, the cookies will turn out just fine.
Thank you so much to my fellow cookie swappers for the delicious treats that brightened my evenings the first week of Decmeber: for the decadent puppy chow cookies from Marly at Chicago Foodies; for the marbled shortbread cookies from Lauren at A Dash of Soul; and for the nutty chocolate sables from Hannah at Fleur-De-Licious.
Date Nut Pinwheel Cookies
Part 1: The dough. Start the day before you need the cookies, since two steps require several hours of refrigeration.
- 1 c. white sugar
- 1 c. brown sugar
- 1 c. butter, softened
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 4 c. flour
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. vanilla
Cream the softened butter and sugars together in a mixer until fluffy. Add the beaten eggs and mix in well. Sift together the dry ingredients — the flour, baking soda and salt — and add to the creamed mixture, along with vanilla. Split the dough into four equal balls, wrap in plastic wrap or Ziploc bags, and refrigerate for a few hours.
Part 2: The filling.
- 1 pound chopped dates (look for ones that are already chopped, for it can be a sticky task)
- ½ c. sugar
- 1 c. finely chopped nuts (such as pecans or walnuts)
- 2/3 to 1 c. water
In a medium size pot, combine all ingredients. Cook over low heat until thick, stirring often to prevent burning or sticking to the pot. Let this filling cool about an hour before using.
Part 3: The rolling.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator one ball at a time. Since the dough is fairly buttery and sticky, sprinkle a good amount of flour on a clean counter. Roll the dough about ¼ inch thick into a rectangle approximately 18×24 inches. Divide the cooled date filling into four equal sections in the pot and use an offset spatula to spread one-quarter onto the dough. This part can get tricky, since the dough has a tendency to tear easily. Gently plop small amounts of the filling onto the dough and spread it in sections. My grandma wrote to “roll up jelly roll fashion” at the long ends, so the short ends become the inside of the spiral. If the dough sticks to the counter, use a dough scraper to help push it along. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Part 4: The baking.
Slice each log into rounds about ¼ inch thick; a serrated knife works best. Wiping off the knife occasionally will help keep the cuts cleaner. Bake at 350 degrees, about 10 minutes, or until the cookie is set and just starting to turn golden.
Makes about 8 dozen cookies.