Sweetly appetising dates
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
"a kind of guilt-free, natural toffee" Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
I'm pretty sure I've done dates in a general sense before but somehow or other recently I came across a very brief reference to 'dates are deseeded and filled with almonds and fresh cream' in an article in The Guardian about food for Ramadan. The notion of dates, almonds and cream was somehow tantalising, and I knew that dates were important fast breakers for the Ramadan evening meal - Iftar, and so I thought I would see what else I could find in the way of appetisers using dates, but, of course, also ended up with some desserts as well - but the emphasis is small and simple. No cakes or puddings here. Lots of good things for parties though - if we can ever have one of them again.
I eventually found a recipe for those Dates and cream Iftar - well that's what Yvonne Maffee calls them on her website My Halal Kitchen. And very correctly Moslem the website is, but I have to say they look delicious. Initially I thought that my source was elsewhere in The Guardian and this eventually led me to Nigel Slater who has a recipe for Dates stuffed with almond paste which are not really the same thing at all as these are a dessert thing, and there are lots of similar recipes out there. The Iftar ones are intended as a pre Iftar nibble I think. A fast breaker.
Mind you, having said that Nigel Slater's stuffed date things are a dessert, I guess they could also be seen as an opener. Because even though dates are really, really sweet, they pair very well with savoury things - and drinks. Whereas I can't imagine nibbling on something chocolatey with my pre-dinner drink, I can imagine nibbling on a date. And really, to be honest, you can't really do better than just do that. Nibble on a Mejdool date.
"The date is a fruit that doesn't know it's a fruit. Fudge-tender, toffee-sweet, richly, stickily indulgent, it's louche and luxurious." Nikki Duffy - River cottage A-Z
Mind you, when I turned to Jane Grigson's chapter on Dates in her Fruit Book she almost put me off dates completely for a moment with this passage about those boxed dates we used to eat at Christmas:
"I read in a vegetarian leaflet that these box dates were washed in detergent and then dipped in syrup: how true this still is I do not know, but it is a story to match the one I was brought up on, about compacted dates in solid packages - they had been crushed together by sandy unwashed feet. One tip I was and remain glad of, always split dates and remove the stone before eating them: sometimes an insect has lain its egg inside, and although I doubt one would come to much harm, I feel such dates are to be avoided."
Now she was writing a long time ago, but somewhere I found a more recent reference to the detergent and the insects. Not that I have ever come across one, but it's enough to make you worry isn't it?
But let's assume that at least the ones from California are OK. And by the way, why don't we grow dates here in Australia? Well I quickly looked it up, and I found that we are trying, but haven't got there yet. A problem with pollination I believe. Currently grown in the SA Riverland and near Alice Springs. You'd have to think it was a no-brainer though wouldn't you? Export opportunities huge as well because we are in the Southern Hemisphere so can supply in the northern off-season. And did you know there are 1500 varieties of dates to choose from, so maybe they haven't found the perfect one for Australia as yet.
But back to appetisers. Well there are heaps of recipes out there for cheese stuffed dates. An example are these Dates stuffed with goat's cheese from Portugal, not that there was a picture but I found a couple of pictures of similar things - the second ones were roasted - presumably with the cheese in them. And the goat's cheese seems to be the favourite although I did find one commenter who said it was too crumbly. Depends on your goat's cheese I guess. Feta might be good.
What about a dip I thought. And I guess you could make up your own. I also thought that Ottolenghi might have something along those lines but no. However, it turns out that there is a traditional Jewish Passover dip called Haroset. Claudia Roden is the go to person here, although she has no picture, but I thought this is probably what it would look like. It's just dates, raisins, nuts and red wine, although actually the recipe that I found online was a tiny bit different and I don't think had the raisins. Not sure about this one. The brown colour is deliberate - it's supposed to represent the mortar used by the Jewish slaves in Egypt.
A rather more tempting and modern looking dip was this Creamy goat cheese bacon and date dip from the New York Times, and perhaps taking this as your template you could improvise on a theme here. Cheese, nuts, bacon, dates plus ?
Then there are the fried things you can do with dates. The well-known Devils on horseback (bacon wrapped prunes) can be changed slightly to dates. Here I found Dates with bacon from Andalucia (but no picture) and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall suggesting a "wonderful hors d'oeuvre stuffed with toasted almonds, wrapped in bacon and fried until crisp on the outside, or stuffed with a little chunk of parmesan or pecorino" Looking a bit like this perhaps - I think these were stuffed with cheese. And you could bake them rather than fry them too.
Let's morph into dessert by looking at truffles, by which I mean chopped dates mixed with other things, sweet or savoury and rolled into balls which are then dusted with something. These are from Saffron Tales, by Yasmin Khan and are made from chopped dates and some tahini, flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla and then rolled in finely chopped almonds. Mostly this kind of thing is a sweet dish though and here the combinations are virtually endless.
And they include a variation on the Passover Charoset - this one is called Charoset and includes apples. The Spruce Eats has a version that they have shaped into truffles, although most of the pictures I saw of Charoset looked like chopped apples, mixed with dates and other things. These Apple and date charoset truffles look quite tempting though.
Then there are the fried desserts. Jane Grigson had something that she called Date kickshaws. Kickshaws seem to be pastry wrapped things that you fry and the filling could be anything. But in her Fruit Book she has date stuffed ones - the dates being combined in her case with orange peel and nuts. Of course there was no picture, and actually not much of a recipe either, but I did find a Maltese dish called Imqaret, which had a rather more complex list of ingredients and is supposed to be diamond shaped, rather than Jane Grigson's crescents. You could use filo pastry though and make triangular ones I guess. Something like the kickshaws on the left - the Imqaret on the right.
Still on frying there is a Madhur Jaffrey recipe which is simply called Fried dates. Jane Grigson features it and there was no picture, but it sounded so simple and potentially delicious, so I had a look and found a fan on a website called London Eats, who had the recipe and this picture. She (or he) raves about it:
"The result is spectacular. This is a buttery, sticky, chewy dessert with a rich, caramel flavour (yes, this might just remind you of sticky toffee pudding). The richness of the dates is balanced well by thick double cream and has some colour and crunch from the pistachios."
Fundamentally all you do is fry the dates and then pour over cream and scatter with nuts.
Still keeping it simple, Bon Appétit makes
Tahini dipped dates - dates dipped in a mixture of yoghurt and tahini and then dipped in coconut flakes or cacao nibs. Or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests that:
"if you'd like to serve them with coffee after pud (or even instead of pud), stuff with toasted almonds or chunks of crystallised orange or lemon peel, and dip them in dark, melted chocolate."
Then there are two extremely simple combinations from two oldies - Robert Carrier and Claudia Roden.
Moroccan Orange salad from Robert Carrier. The picture is not his but I think it probably is very similar. Slice oranges, sprinkle with chopped dates and slivered almonds. Flavour to taste with orange flower water or lemon juice and icing sugar. Chill and just before serving sprinkle with powdered cinnamon. It looks like this person has added yoghurt, maybe.
Claudia Roden, in her wonderful book Picnic mixes her dates with bananas. Layer sliced bananas and halved pitted dates in a container. Pour over single cream and leave for at least an hour. According to her "the fruit will acquire a lovely creamy stickiness." I've always wanted to try this.
Slightly more complicated, but not too much are Roasted dates in coffee syrup from Greg Malouf but alas no picture, and Orange and date french toast from delicious Magazine. Yes I think you could eat this for dessert as well as breakfast. Indeed a bit too much work for breakfast.
I fear this has become another list of things you are never going to make. I confess that to me dates are one of those things that really shouldn't be spoilt by anything else - other than in a sticky date pudding that is. But maybe I should try a Sticky date martini. No - not much into cocktails, though David, rather weirdly just brought me a pre-dinner sherry. Sherry! Very retro.