In the 1960’s, Chock Full o’ Nuts lunch counters were all over New York City; at one point there were well over one hundred of them, which makes them as ubiquitous as Starbucks are today. But where Starbucks tries too hard to be cool, Chock Full o’ Nuts just was. It will always say New York to me because the New York of my childhood wasn’t the internationally known, shiny-steel-and-glass-skyscraper city that it is now. It was smaller, somehow; it was a city of neighborhoods, of local merchants, of walking to school. It was local corner bar-and- grills (ours was Shield’s, on the corner of Fordham Road and Grand Avenue), not chain, themed restaurants. It was Louis Carbone’s Greengrocers, not Whole Foods. It was my grandparents’ small, personal, electronics store, not cavernous Best Buys. Yes, everything was smaller then, even fun.
For instance, when I was little, among the best treats I could imagine was to go shopping with my mother at Alexander’s or Loehmann’s and stop for a nutted cheese sandwich for lunch. Now, I liked Nedick’s hot dogs – grilled crispy, then placed lovingly in a split-top, buttered-and-grilled roll – and orangeade, too, but offered a choice, I would have chosen a nutted cheese every time.
A nutted cheese was two thin slices of date-and-nut bread slathered with cream cheese and wrapped in waxed paper – with precisely folded hospital corners – and placed first on a doily and then on a thick, pottery, sandwich plate. I have read that the original nutted cheese was two slices of whole wheat raisin bread stuffed with cream cheese with walnuts mixed in and that it was so popular, the founder and owner of Chock Full o’ Nuts, William Black, added the second version as a sort of companion to the first. I don’t remember the earlier version but I loved the second. I loved them so much that my mother baked date-and-nut bread, sliced it paper-thin and smeared cream cheese on both sides for my school lunches. Nutted cheese and sweet, milky tea were indicative of a good afternoon for me.
In honor of the approaching holidays when many people like me enjoy baking; my newfound ability in the kitchen; and my great affection for everything concerning my New York childhood, here is a recipe for a version of the nutted cheese sandwich. (A loud and sincere thank you goes to Leah Koenig and her “Lost Foods of New York” column for allowing me the opportunity to revisit my childhood yet again.)
DATE-NUT BREAD AND CREAM CHEESE SANDWICHES
For the bread (makes 1 loaf):
1 cup pitted chopped dried dates
3/4 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
3 Tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
8-oz package cream cheese, slightly softened
1. Preheat oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9×5-inch metal loaf pan, set aside.
2. Add the dates to medium-sized, heat-safe bowl. Pour boiling water over top, stir and let stand 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl. Add the nuts and set aside.
4. In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until combined (mixture might look crumbly). Add eggs and vanilla and mix until smooth and combined.
5. Alternate between adding the flour mixture and the date mixture (including remaining water), 1/2 of each at a time, mixing until combined.
6. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 45-55 minutes, until bread is almost completely baked, but a few crumbs still stick to a toothpick inserted into the loaf. The bread will continue cooking after it is removed from the oven, so be careful not to overbake.
Assemble the sandwiches:
7. Let bread cool for 10-15 minutes, then remove from pan and let cool fully on a rack. Once cooled, slice bread and serve as closed or open-faced sandwiches spread with a tablespoon or two of cream cheese.