I found it next to impossible to pull a quote from this book that would encapsulate the reasoning behind this dessert. The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels crisscrosses between Egypt and Canada as we follow the life, love and loss of Avery (an engineer tasked with moving a sacred temple block by block to higher ground) and his wife, Jean (a horticulturalist who finds a spiritual connection between the soil and her deceased parents). In essence,
"It is the story of ... people and nations displaced and uprooted; and of the myriad means by which we all seek out a place we can call home"
By page 23 I knew I would be making a Matrimonial Cake (as it is known in Canada - I'm not sure why). The crumbly squares perfectly represent the blocks of the temple while the date filling comes straight from the palm trees so loved by Jean for their shade along the Nile. The coconut, pecans, spices and orange zest are not traditional, I wanted to add a little something extra special to symbolise the divinity of the great Abu Simbel temple and the memory of Jean's parents.
I also found it quite fitting that Matrimonial Cake reminds me of my childhood Christmases in Canada. It was a staple dessert that found it's way into many a bake swap and I remember eating thick wedges of it with one hand poised below my chin to catch all the delicious crumbly bits. As this has been my 11th Christmas away from home, it also evokes the same nostalgic longing in me that is echoed throughout the book.
Divine Matrimonial Cake
Makes 16 large squares or 32 bite-sized ones
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g light brown sugar
125g plain flour
zest of 1 small orange
1/2 tsp cinnamon
small handful coconut
small handful pecans, roughly chopped
For the Filling:
200g pitted dates
juice of 1/4 lemon
2tbsp golden syrup or corn syrup
In a large bowl mix together the butter, sugar, oatmeal, flour, orange zest and spices until they resemble breadcrumbs. (Or pulse it together in a food processor, if you prefer). Pour 3/4 of the mix into a 23x23cm (9x9 inch) pan lined with grease proof paper and firmly press to form the base. Place in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling. Add the coconut and chopped pecans to the remaining 1/4 and set aside.
In a saucepan, bring the dates and water to the boil, stirring occasionally while mashing with a fork, until it forms rough puree. Add a splash more water if necessary. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before transferring to a food processor. Add the lemon juice and syrup then give it a whizz to break down any fibrous strands of date. Pour this onto your refrigerated base and top with the remaining crumble mixture. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Also keeps well in the freezer.