Middle Eastern date desserts for Tu Bishvat

Dates from Iran, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia at an Istanbul market; the most expensive ones are from Israel. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Dates from Iran, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia at an Istanbul market; the most expensive ones are from Israel.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
For celebrating Tu Bishvat, the “New Year of the Trees,” dates and desserts made from them are the perfect treats.
After all, the honey in the biblical Land of Milk and Honey was date honey. This land was “the land of Canaan located on the banks of the Jordan River, where date palms and date honey were abundant,” wrote Nawal Nasrallah, the author of Dates: A Global History.
“Nowhere has the date palm been as central to people’s economic and cultural lives as it has been in the Middle East,” wrote Nasrallah.
“In the arid zones, where it grows most successfully, it is the meal itself. The date is an affordable concentrated energy, a staple food, comparable to wheat, potatoes and rice in other parts of the world...
It is called ‘bread of the desert’ and ‘cake for the poor.’” Traditionally, dates are enjoyed simply. Some serve them with small, tender cucumbers. Dates stuffed with clotted cream are an Arabian treat, wrote Nasrallah; the clotted cream can be replaced with cream cheese or ricotta.
Making cakes with dates has a long history. In ancient Mesopotamia, “royal fruitcakes (Sumerian goog, from which ka’k and cake probably derived) were made with dates along with raisins and figs, and the pastry cooks of the ancient Egyptian ‘cake-room’ were called ‘workers in dates,’” noted Nasrallah.
In the Arabian Gulf, the nomadic lifestyle and scarcity of fresh produce meant that dates were mostly enjoyed fresh off the tree, wrote Sarah al-Hamad, author of Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee – Date Desserts from Everywhere. “A purist would insist that a date be enjoyed fresh, left in the mouth to release its flavors, then washed down with water or Arabic gahwa, a concentrated, strong coffee.” Others enjoy them in desserts that are “spartan in their simplicity, with no added sugar,” like tamriya (desert date fudge with nuts) and rangeenak (walnut- stuffed dates with a buttery coating). (See recipes.)
One of Hamad’s simpler date dishes is Babylonian breakfast, a compote of dates and almonds cooked with star anise, vanilla and date syrup. (See recipe.) Another quick and easy traditional treat is hais, or desert energy balls, made of ground dates and nuts rolled in sesame seeds.
Nasrallah’s Iraqi kleicha, date-filled cookies known elsewhere as ma’amoul, are similar to cakes made by the Mesopotamians. They are prepared with a dough flavored with cardamom, aniseed, cinnamon and nigella seeds. The date filling, which is enriched with butter, also has a variety of flavorings – cardamom, cinnamon, coriander seeds, sesame seeds and rose water.
Date syrup, known as silan or dibs, has been made since at least the 13th century, wrote Nasrallah. The name silan comes from the term for the cold press method, called sayalan (oozing), for which a weight is put on the dried soft dates to let syrup ooze out naturally. A popular way to serve silan is with thick cream and warm bread, or generously drizzled with tehina to make a delicious winter dip.
Coconut- and date-stuffed naans are a specialty of Parsi cuisine, wrote Hamad. To make these sweet breads, she flavors yeast dough with date syrup, encloses a mixture of dried coconut and finely chopped dates in thin rounds of the dough, and fries them. Her Western- style desserts include date and cardamom-spiced crème brûlée, and chocolate date cake with a tehina and white chocolate sauce.
Many people in the Mideast view the date as a miracle food. According to Nasrallah, the prophet Muhammad recommended eating seven dates a day to safeguard against poison and witchcraft.
In local lore, dates have long been considered an aphrodisiac. Nasrallah pointed out that “grooms are advised to eat half a kilo of dates on the day of their wedding.”
For Tu Bishvat, eating that many dates might be a bit excessive, don’t you think?
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Babylonian Breakfast – date, star anise and almond compote
Sarah al-Hamad wrote that this recipe was inspired by a creamy porridge recorded in the Babylonian palace diary. She recommends serving it on creamy oatmeal or other porridge or with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt, drizzled with a little honey and whatever fresh fruit is in season.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 200 gr. (7 ounces) dates, chopped
❖ 80 gr. (3 ounces) almonds, chopped
❖ 1 star anise
❖ ½ vanilla pod, seeds scraped
❖ 1 Tbsp. date syrup (silan)
Place all ingredients in a saucepan, add 1¼ cups water, cover and cook over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes until all the ingredients are well-combined and the mixture is thick, soft and sticky.
Discard the star anise and vanilla pod.
Desert Date Fudge – Tamriya
This comforting classic is one of the simplest desserts to make, noted Hamad. The Gulf’s sweet dishes almost exclusively celebrate the date and another ingredient, readily available in times of war and peace – wheat flour.
Ground cardamom or saffron might be added as flavoring.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 1 cup (150 gr. or 5 ounces) all-purpose flour
❖ 2/3 cup vegetable oil
❖ 250 gr. (9 ounces) dates, finely chopped
❖ Walnuts or almonds, roughly chopped (for garnish)
In a large saucepan toast the flour over low heat, stirring regularly, until a nutty aroma arises and the flour turns golden brown. This process takes around 15 to 20 minutes and cannot be rushed, or the flour will burn.
Carefully pour the vegetable oil into the toasted flour and stir until you have a brown paste. Add the chopped dates, then mix well with a wooden spoon (a metal spoon will get hot very quickly) until incorporated and the bottom of the pan is clean. This will take a few minutes, as you mash the dates up into the flour paste.
Remove from heat and divide between four plates. Sprinkle with walnuts and serve warm, with cream or on its own. To reheat, return to the pan with a drop of oil.
Shirazi Date Slice – Rangeenak
In Shiraz, wrote Hamad, the dates and nuts are finely chopped and mixed with buttery dough. In other places, the dates are stuffed with nuts, as in the recipe below, and covered with a butter and flour mixture. “Cooking the flour and butter first allows the wheat’s nuttiness to come through.”
Makes 8 to 10 servings
❖ 300 gr. (11 ounces) dates, pitted
❖ 45 gr. (2 ounces) walnuts, halved lengthwise
❖ 2 Tbsp. sesame seeds
❖ ½ tsp. ground cardamom
❖ 200 gr. (7 ounces or 14 Tbsp.) butter
❖ Scant 1½ cups (200 gr. or 7 ounces) all-purpose flour
❖ Chopped pistachios or almonds (for garnish)
Carefully slit dates down the center, with as small an opening as possible to fit a piece of walnut inside. Squeeze it shut into shape.
Position the stuffed dates closely together in a square pan or oven-proof dish, either upright or side-by-side.
Toast the sesame seeds in a pan for a minute until fragrant and golden, then scatter over the dates, along with a sprinkling of ground cardamom.
Melt the butter in a wide saucepan set over low heat. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Keep stirring for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the mixture goes from a grainy texture to a liquid paste and from pale to light caramel. It may bubble, so keep stirring, as it can catch.
Carefully pour the mixture over the dates, using a spoon to ensure every date is covered and the mixture is spread out into the corners.
Sprinkle with chopped nuts and leave to cool for a few hours until set.
Slice and enjoy with a cup of deep red, unsweetened tea.