Dates are the fruit of the date palm. The tree hails from the desert oases of Northern Africa or the Persian Gulf and has a history so long experts can’t pinpoint its exact origins. The earliest carvings from Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations show dates were already a well-established staple. In those regions, dates are still considered an essential of life and have about 800 distinct uses.
Desert Arabs have been known to maintain health for long periods on virtually nothing but dates and milk, and some authorities consider dates a nearly perfect food. Most of their value lies in their high sugar content, ranging between 50 percent for fresh dates and 70 percent for dried ones. But they also contain a fair amount of protein, fats, vitamins A and B, minerals such as iron and magnesium, and high levels of fiber and potassium.
Most of the dates we get in the United States are of the large Medjool variety, although others, notably the Bardhi, are also available. Most are sold pitted and packaged, chopped or whole. If buying in the bulk section, look for plump dates with smooth, shiny skin. Avoid those that are highly shriveled and those developing mold or sugar crystals on their skin.
Dates figure prominently into the Feast of Ramadan, the 30-day observance when Muslims fast between sunrise and sundown. Tradition holds that dates were the first food the prophet Muhammad ate when breaking his fast, but the wisdom of eating dates transcends the spiritual—dates help regulate blood sugar during long periods of fasting.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
25 dates (about 8 ounces), chopped
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly coat an 8-inch springform pan with cooking spray.
2. To prepare cake, combine dates, boiling water and baking soda in a bowl. Let stand 30 minutes or until lukewarm.
3. Combine sugar and butter and beat with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
4. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Gently fold flour mixture and softened dates (including soaking water) into egg mixture just until blended. Pour into prepared pan, smoothing top. Place on a shallow baking pan and bake about 45 minutes, until top is puffed and slightly firm to the touch in the center. (Center may fall slightly after baking.)
5. Let cake cool on a wire rack 20 minutes. Run a knife along the inside of the pan to release cake. Carefully remove side of pan.
6. To prepare sauce, combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes, without stirring. (Makes 1 2/3 cups sauce.)
7. To serve, slice cake into 12 wedges. Spoon about 2 tablespoons warm sauce on top of each piece. Serve with vanilla ice cream. Serves 12.
Per serving: 430 calories, 20g fat, 105mg chol., 4g prot., 59g carbs., 2g fiber, 390mg sodium.
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Photo credit: Mark Boughton Photography; styling by Teresa Blackburn