It’s interesting how a new dish can become a beloved staple overnight. The first time that I shared Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family, I was warned to watch out for occasional buckshot that might have escaped notice while preparing the wild turkey.
But there was no warning needed for date pudding, a holiday dessert made by my husband’s family for generations. Although it initially sounded odd to me, one bite of the gooey, sweet dessert, piled high with homemade whipped cream, and I was hooked.
An unusual combination of chopped dates and nuts, with crumbled saltine crackers, milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla, date pudding quickly became a holiday staple in our own home. When baked, the pudding turns golden brown on top and expands high above the pan rim before falling into its own sticky goodness.
Dates have been a staple food in many cultures for thousands of years.
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“Dates in Morocco are a staple as well as a symbol,” said writer and cook Jeff Koehler, whose 2012 book, “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes From the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora” (Chronicle Books), reflects trips from his home in Barcelona to Morocco for research about the country’s regional cooking.
Dates “are traditionally offered to guests with a glass of milk and are the first item eaten with the breaking of the fast during Ramadan,” Koehler wrote. “They are found in various sweets, such as dates stuffed with almond paste, filling certain cookies and garnishing sweet couscous alongside almonds and raisins.”
Nader Shehata and Mo Mosley, co-owners of the Basha Cuisine, offer dates on the side in their Ramadan buffet.
“Dates add a lot of nutrition and good sugar after you’ve been fasting all day,” Shehata says. “They generally hold over well for a few days to a week.”
Sonja Overhiser uses dates as a natural sweetener. Co-writer of the blog A Couple Cooks with her husband, Alex, she first used dates with cocoa powder and walnuts to make a raw brownie.
“I was immediately impressed with the sweetness and texture they impart. Since then I’ve used them often in energy bars, no-bake cookies, and even sweeteners in smoothies and ‘healthy’ milkshakes.”
The couple’s Raw Brownie Parfait was unusual enough get a mention in Midwest Living magazine.
Leigh Wagner, a dietitian with the KU Integrative Medicine, also typically uses dates to sweeten things, including salad dressing and smoothies.
“They add richness and sweetness without adding refined sugar, versus maple syrup or honey,” Wagner said. “Dates also have fiber.”
Because of their rich fiber content, dates may work as a laxative and help to prevent LDL cholesterol absorption in the gut.
But fiber is only one potential health benefit of eating dates. They are rich in iron, potassium, calcium, manganese, copper and magnesium. Some health practitioners think eating them can reduce heart problems and ease many other conditions. Zeaxanthin found in dates also may protect against macular degeneration, especially in elderly people.
Dates can replenish energy while offering moderate amounts of vitamin A, B-complex vitamins and vitamin K. Flavonoids, beta carotene, lutein and other carotenoids provide additional health benefits. In addition, their tannins offer anti-infective, anti-inflammatory and anti-bleeding benefits.
Although dates frequently star in sweet dishes, they’re also a tasty ingredient in savory dishes. Chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates have been on La Bodega’s tapas menu for 17 years, says chef English Renshaw.
“We were about the first restaurant in the nation doing that and ended up getting national coverage. We like to call it the meat-sweet treat. The sweetness helps cut through the fat of the chorizo (and so does the orange juice). You can really play with your palate.
“I don’t think there’s anything you can’t use (dates) with. They go well with salads, vegetables and fish.”
At Avenues Bistro, executive chef Mario Galan serves small plates of bacon-wrapped dates with brown sugar, Madeira and balsamic. They have become the restaurant’s best-selling dish.
“The saltiness and smoky flavor from the bacon, combined with the wine, a little bit of pepper flakes and rosemary, make a great combination,” he says.
Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance food and travel writer who lives in Overland Park.
Although date palms likely originated around Iraq, they have spread to Australia, Spain, North Africa, the Canary Islands, the Cayman Islands, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, as well as Israel, Iran, China, Fiji, northern Mexico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
The fruit grows well in Puerto Rico, Florida and several Western states, but California’s Coachella Valley produces about 95 percent of all dates in this country. Harvesting typically takes place from late August through December. Large, sweet and succulent, Medjools are the most common U.S. variety.
- Dates should stay well-wrapped and/or stored in a plastic container so they don’t dry out.
- Choose dates with smooth and shiny skin.
- Once chopped, dates are often rolled in oat flour or dextrose to reduce their stickiness before packaging
- If you see (natural) sugar crystals, the dates are getting a little old
Pea, Date and Walnut Salad
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 cups shelled fresh English peas or thawed frozen peas (about 10 ounces)
1 1/2 to 2 cups sugar snap peas or snow peas, trimmed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped pitted, unsweetened Medjool dates
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons walnut oil or unflavored olive oil
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice water. If using fresh English peas, add to the boiling water and cook until tender, about 1 minute. Add the snap peas and cook until bright green, about 2 minutes. Drain the peas and plunge into the ice water to cool.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the walnuts, dates and cayenne, and cook until the nuts are slightly toasted, about 1 more minute.
Drain the peas, shaking off the excess water, then add to the skillet (if using frozen peas, add them here).
Add 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until heated through, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the walnut oil or other oil and toss. Add more salt to taste.
Per serving, based on 8: 136 calories (46 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 15 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 41 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Adapted from Food Network Kitchen
Blue Cheese Date and Basil Spread
Makes 2 1/2 cups
4 ounces strong-flavored blue cheese
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 1/4 cups pitted, unsweetened Medjool dates, finely chopped
1/4 to 1/3 cup finely chopped basil
Low salt crackers, for serving
In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine blue cheese and cream cheese. Process mixture until it becomes smooth and blended. Transfer to air-tight container and chill in refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
Bring to room temperature and then stir in dates and basil. Serve with crackers.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 69 calories (64 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 15 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 73 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Source: Adapted from recipe by Sandra Lee of the Food Network Kitchen
Spinach Salad With Dates and Jicama
Makes 6 servings
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup pitted, unsweetened Medjool dates, quartered
1/2 cup jicama, peeled and cut into matchstick-size strips
1 (10-ounce) package prewashed spinach, torn (about 12 cups)
1/2 cup red sweet pepper, cut into matchstick-size strips
In a screw-top jar, combine vinegar, oil, jalapeno pepper and garlic. Cover; shake well. In a bowl, combine dates, jicama, red pepper strips and dressing; toss to coat.
Divide the spinach evenly among six salad plates. Arrange date mixture on spinach. Season with salt and pepper to taste, if desired.
Per serving: 168 calories (61 percent from fat), 12 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 39 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Adapted from Recipe.com
Date Dijon Dressing and Marinade
Serve over salads, use as a dipping sauce or marinate one pound of chicken before cooking.
Makes 1/2 to 3/4 cups
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 to 2 cloves garlic
4 to 5 large dates, pitted and soaked for 30 minutes
Stevia or pure maple syrup
Place ingredients except dates into blender and process until smooth. Add soaked and pitted dates, and blend until desired texture. You may need to add more olive oil or water to thin it. If more sweetness is desired, add a few drops of Stevia or a touch of pure maple syrup to taste.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 83 calories (78 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 159 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Source: Leigh Wagner, KU Integrative Medicine
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 heaping cup seedless dates
1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, plus more for garnish
1 cup sugar
16 saltine crackers
4 level teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons milk (do not use cream or half and half)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Fresh whipped cream, for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine all ingredients in food processor until smooth and pour into a well-greased loaf pan. Place loaf pan on top of a baking sheet to catch potential batter overflow as the pudding rises. Bake for about 30 minutes; do not bake it too hard. When the pudding cools, it will naturally “fall” in the middle.
Serve with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of nuts
Per serving, based on 6: 338 calories (23 percent from fat), 9 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 71 milligrams cholesterol, 64 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 459 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Source: The Lucien Gray family
Double Chocolate Oatmeal Date Cookies
Makes 3 to 4 dozen
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup oil
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup walnuts, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, beat together butter, oil and sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.
In another mixing bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Mix well and add to other ingredients. Blend thoroughly.
Stir in cocoa and then add bittersweet chips, dates, oatmeal, and walnuts if desired. Mix well. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 12 to 14 minutes or until slightly firm. Cool 3 to 5 minutes on cookie sheet. Gently remove to wire rack or parchment-topped foil.
Per cookie, based on 3 dozen: 130 calories (42 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 19 milligrams cholesterol, 17 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 62 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Source: Lisa Waterman Gray
Triple Berry Raw Brownie Parfait
Makes 4 servings
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
12 large pitted dates
1/4 cup slivered almonds
3 cups frozen mixed berries (1 pound)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
4 cups plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In the bowl of a food processor, add walnuts and process on high until the nuts are finely ground. Add cocoa powder and salt. Pulse to combine.
Remove the pits from the dates. Turn on the food processor, and as it is running add the dates one at a time. Stop processing once the mixture is crumbly but easily formable. Add almonds and pulse several times to combine.
In a small square dish or pan, press the brownie mixture into a layer at least 1-inch thick (even if it does not fill the entire dish), or thicker if desired. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes.
Place 3 cups frozen berries, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons maple syrup in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir for several minutes until fruit is thawed.
In a small bowl, mix cornstarch with water, then pour into saucepan with berries and heat until the sauce is thickened.
In another mixing bowl, stir together yogurt, 1/4 cup maple syrup and vanilla extract.
To assemble the parfait, layer yogurt, crumbles of raw brownies and berry sauce in a tall glass.
Per serving: 631 calories (30 percent from fat), 25 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 4 milligrams cholesterol, 89 grams carbohydrates, 26 grams protein, 218 milligrams sodium, 13 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Sonja and Alex Overhiser, A Couple Cooks/acouplecooks.com