By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
I mean that literally. It’s one of those delicious dried fruits that often don’t get their due. I usually think of raisins first and foremost for baking, and dried apricots for snacking. Then I move on to prunes and figs. Oh, and what about dates? They are just as delectable to incorporate into your muffins, coffee cakes, quick breads (breads made without yeast), and other pastries.
Dates are also wonderful tossed into salads, rice pilafs, stuffings for different meats, and made into appetizers with either bacon or goat cheese. Not to mention that eating fresh Medjools, with their caramel-like flavor, straight up is a real luxury. Let’s rethink their place in our pantry and recipes.
Dates “date” back to 4,000 B.C., when they were first cultivated in the area between Egypt and Mesopotamia. They are considered the oldest fruit on our planet. When we hear the phrase “the land of milk and honey” from Exodus in the Old Testament, it probably refers to date syrup, or silan, and not honey, as there is no evidence of bees that long ago.
Most of the dates in the world are grown in the Mideast, with Egypt the largest producer of dates. California is the biggest U.S. producer, mostly grown around the Palm Springs desert areas. The climate is similar to that of the Mideast. Dates need sandy, slightly rocky soil with lots of hot sun.
I had the good fortune to chat with a date rancher, Rick Olds of Desert Mountain Ranch last week. Since I personally didn’t know much about the fruit, I asked him to educate me.
Raising this fruit is not as easy as it looks. It takes a date palm shoot 10 years to actually bear fruit. I guess one needs to be really patient! Rick and his partner, Carter, started 14 years ago with 200 shoots, each one painstakingly planted by hand. Now they have a total of 300 trees, producing about 200 pounds of dates per tree each year. They do a brisk business to local residents as well as direct to consumers online at www.desertmountaindates.com,
Rick explained to me that date palms do not self-pollenate. The pollen is hand collected from the male trees and pollenated–you guessed it!–by hand to the female flowers. After pollination in the spring when the fruit begins to develop, each clump of dates has to be thinned out so the remaining dates develop into nice plump specimens. Harvesting in the fall is a three-step process, making sure only the ripest fruit is picked at its peak.
According to healthline.com, dates have healthful properties besides being high in fiber and antioxidants. They are rich in calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Be aware: because they are a dried fruit, there is no shortage of calories in these little beauties. For unadorned eating, try to buy Medjool, the king of dates, or Declet Noor, the queen. Both cook and bake up wonderfully.
A year ago, I was given a large bag of dates. Unfortunately, I didn’t open them until recently. Too dried out to eat from the bag but, alas, I’ve been baking up a storm with them. I developed a dairy-free, dense date and nut-filled bread with undertones of coffee (why not?) and studded with chocolate chips. The bread gets better with age, developing a moister consistency on the second and third day. It’s great warmed and smeared with cream cheese.
Here at The Insider, we hope that you’ll hunt down the plumpest Medjool dates for your culinary pleasure. Let us know what recipes you come up with!
Date Nut Bread
Yield: 1 loaf, about 12 servings
2 c. chopped dates
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. packed light brown sugar
1 c. hot brewed coffee
1 lg. egg
1 Tbsp. brandy or rum (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 3/4 c. flour
1 c. coarsely chopped walnuts
1 c. chocolate chips or small chunks, optional
Spray an 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaf pan with pan release. Preheat oven to 350°.
Place the dates, oil, baking soda, salt, and brown sugar in a mixing bowl. Pour on the hot coffee. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Allow mixture to sit for at least 15 minutes.
Add the egg, vanilla, brandy (optional), baking powder and flour. Beat gently with a wooden spoon until combined. Fold in the walnuts and chocolate chips in. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle top with cinnamon sugar. Bake for 35 minutes. Turn heat down to 325°. Bake an additional 20 minutes or until the center springs back.
Cool before slicing.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.