When Colleen Sundlie lived in the Middle East she discovered date boutiques similar to a fine chocolate shop, but instead of truffles and bonbons, they feature precise pyramids of the naturally sweet tree fruit.
A staple of the region, dates suffuse every part of the culture: “Any time you go to someone’s home, you are offered dates and Arabic coffee,” Sundlie says. “And I don’t mean most of the time. Every time.”
But when Sundlie returned to the United States and settled in Springfield, Mo., she couldn’t get her hands on a divine date syrup she had developed a taste for. So she created Date Lady, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month.
Sundlie’s date caramel sauce ($8.99 per 11-ounce jar) has just won a prestigious Sofi award from the Specialty Food Association. And she has landed shelf space for that sauce and her date coconut caramel sauce at both local The Better Cheddar stores, a sentimental favorite she frequented when she lived in an apartment near the Country Club Plaza shop after college.
The caramel sauces grew out of a chocolate sauce. “Dates go well with chocolate because most dates have a strong natural caramel note anyway,” she says.
The date caramel sauce is a decadent but spoonable concoction that has a chocolate-y note. The coconut date caramel is pourable, with a tropical note thanks to the addition of coconut cream.
I tried them both alone and stirred into ice cream. Another serving suggestion: Swirl it into your morning coffee.
Sundlie’s production kitchen is in an old ice cream factory built in the 1940s on Commercial Street, just down the street from Askinosie Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker.
The Date Lady product line includes date syrup, date balsamic vinegar, chocolate date sauce and date sugar. Items are priced from $6.99 to $9.99. A date-studded fruitcake is available for the holidays.
Many Americans first encounter dates as an ingredient chopped into their energy bars, but Sundlie says she wants to create more mainstream products based on deliciousness — “not just for the benefit of being healthy.” Minus the cream, the coconut caramel sauce is organic, vegan, gluten-free and non-GMO.
Since the U.S. grows only 1 percent of the world’s date crop, most dates are imported. Medjool and Deglet Noor are the most common types available, but Sundlie uses the rarer Barhi cultivar because it is smaller, softer, chewier, less fibrous and offers a stronger caramel flavor.
“Most people can’t tell the difference between a date, a fig or a prune,” Sundlie says. “They just blend together, even though they are very different.”
But that may change when the thousands of acres of date trees planted in the U.S. in recent years reach maturity. It takes five years before a date tree produces fruit.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her on Facebook, @jillwsilva on Instagram and @kcstarfood on Twitter.