In Praise of Dates

Growing up, the only thing I knew about dates, was that they came in hard compressed bricks that didn’t excite me at all. Later, as a grown up, I discovered fresh dates, and suddenly my taste buds woke up and started to pay attention. In the Middle East dates are loved and available in many different guises. Not only are dates nutritious, but they have become my sweet staple. The form I love best is date honey. Not the kind bees make, but rather a date syrup. Not only is it delicious, it is also extremely versatile as an alternative sweetener.

Even though one can buy it everywhere here, one can also make one’s own. For a raw date syrup, simply blend one cup soaked pitted dates with one cup filtered water. To this you may also add a tablespoon of lemon juice if you like. Another method is to boil about 36 pitted and chopped dates with 2 cups of water to which you may add vanilla and cinnamon to taste. Allow it to simmer over very low heat with the lid of your pot on for about an hour before cooling and blending it well. Add water if your syrup is too thick. Keep your date honey/syrup in the fridge and eat it drizzled over pancakes, cooked oats, flap jacks or on thick Greek yoghurt sprinkled with nuts.

A favourite recipe of mine is for the following date health bars. For the filling you need to mix the following in a saucepan: 1 cup pitted and chopped dates; 1 cup chopped dried figs; zest of one orange; a 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice; and 1/2 a teaspoon ground cinnamon. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer over a very low heat with the lid on for about 10 minutes or until the mixture is gooey and soft. Remove from heat and mix in 1/2 a cup of chopped walnuts and 2 tablespoons desiccated coconut.

For the crumb mixture you need to mix the following: 2 cups oats; 1 cup whole wheat flour; ½ cup desiccated coconut; ¼ cup Xylitol (or sugar); ½ a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda; 3 tablespoons date syrup; 2 tablespoons butter; and a ¼ cup milk. Grease a square baking dish (about 30×30 cm) and spread half of the crumb mixture in the bottom and gently press down. Spread the filling over the crumb mixture, and lastly spread the remaining crumb mixture on top and again press down gently. Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for about 30 minutes, or until the crumbs turn golden. Cool and cut into pieces.

For a delightfully sweet pudding try the following recipe for Sticky Date Pudding. Combine the following in a bowl: 170 g dates (stoned and chopped), 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda and 300 ml boiling water. Leave to rest for about an hour before placing it in a food processor. Give it a good whizz. Cream 60 g butter with 80 g Xylitol (or brown sugar) before adding 2 eggs. Gently stir in 170 g flour. Fold in pureed date mix into the batter. Pour into a lightly greased baking dish or individual cups and bake in a preheated oven at 180° C until a skewer comes out clean. Make the sauce while your pudding is baking: place 2/3 cup cream, 150 g butter and 1/2 cup date syrup/honey in a pan on low heat and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Pour over the pudding and serve with mascarpone cheese, cream, vanilla ice cream or custard. Mmmm! Don’t think about the calories and simply enjoy a bowl of heaven.

A favourite recipe of mine that Michael also loves, is the following one for a Vegan Date Loaf. Place the following ingredients in a pot: 100 ml Xylitol (or if you love something much sweeter: 250 ml sugar), 2 ml salt, 10 ml cinnamon powder, 250 ml pitted and chopped dates, 500 ml water and 125 ml sunflower oil. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes. Depending on the dates you are using they may simply cook away. Cool completely, and blend till smooth. Add  15 ml date honey and little batches of flour mixture (500 ml All Purpose Flour in total sifted together with 10 ml baking soda) to the liquid. Mix well after each addition. Add 250 ml chopped pecan or walnuts. Mix and pour into an oiled loaf, cake tin or muffin pan and bake 20-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean in a pre-heated oven of 180° C. The type of pan you use will largely determine baking time.

From the above recipes, I guess it is clear that I am on a date binge, and constantly in search of another recipe to test.