The reason I chose dates for this week’s column goes back to seeing a display in a Los Banos grocery store during recent travels. As soon as I walked in, I spotted the 2-pound clear plastic tubs full of sweet, sticky Deglet Noor (also Deglet Nour) dates, just begging to be placed in my shopping cart. Upon arriving at my mom’s house, I shared the tub of dates with family. We literally could not stop eating them, and everyone commented that they had never had such delicious dates as those. In just one day, those dates pretty much did a disappearing act, so I was very happy to find some more in a Gilroy grocery store. I left those with my mom, and on the way home stopped once again in Los Banos, where I bought two more tubs to take home. They were a lot more expensive in Gilroy, so that is why I didn’t load up there. Deglet Noor dates are called The Queen of Dates and appreciated for their soft texture, transparent light color and honey-like taste, which supposedly distinguish the Deglet Noor from other dates. I was happy to see that California has a very successful date growing climate. The origin of this particular date is said to be (according to old books on the subject) Algeria, but Tunisia also lays claim to the title of original producer. Wherever they came from, I am a huge fan of the Deglet Noor date.
Sticky date cupcakes
1 1/3 cups pitted dates, chopped
1/3 cup water
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup milk
Chocolate toffee sauce (recipe follows)
1. Preheat oven to 350. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine dates and water. Cook until dates are soft and water is absorbed, then set aside to allow mixture to cool.
2. In a small bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt, then set bowl aside.
3. In a large bowl, beat together the sugars and butter with an electric mixer until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture, mixing until combined. Add milk and reserved date mixture, beating until smooth.
4. Scoop batter into a muffin pan that has been lined with paper liners. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and tops of cupcakes spring back when lightly touched. Let cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely on rack.
5. When ready to serve, remove paper liners from cupcakes. Top warm cupcakes with chocolate toffee sauce. Makes 12 cupcakes.
Chocolate toffee sauce
1 cup whipping cream
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. In a heavy saucepan, whisk together cream, brown sugar, corn syrup, butter and salt. Butter will be lumpy, but that won’t matter.
2. Place saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. If mixture starts to boil rapidly, reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
3. Whisk in chocolate and vanilla until smooth. Spoon hot toffee sauce over warm cupcakes and serve immediately.
Moist date cake
This recipe calls for the large Medjool dates and date syrup. If you can’t find any date syrup in a grocery store, there are several sources you can find online.
12 Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 cup cinnamon-spiced tea, freshly steeped
2 eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup creme fraiche, or sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 cubes) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup pure date syrup
3/4 cup date syrup glaze (recipe follows)
1. Preheat oven to 350. Place chopped dates in a small bowl and pour 1 cup of hot cinnamon-spiced tea over them. Soak the dates for at least 15 minutes. Drain, then set the dates aside.
2. Spray 2 mini springform pans, 4 1/2 inches diameter, with nonstick cooking spray or use a small amount of canola oil. Line bottoms and sides of pans with parchment paper.
3. Beat eggs and sugar together in a mixing bowl until the eggs turn a pale yellow color and the texture thickens. Beat in the vanilla.
4. In a separate bowl, thoroughly blend flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Combine egg mixture and dry ingredients, alternating with creme fraiche or sour cream until the batter becomes smooth.
5. In another mixing bowl, combine butter and date syrup. Add the soft mixture to the egg mixture, combining well to make the cake batter. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pans, then sprinkle the chopped dates over, allowing them to sink a bit, using a spoon if necessary. Using a spatula, smooth the top, or carefully pick up the pans a couple of inches and drop them a few times against your work surface.
6. Bake cake batter in preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until the top becomes crackly and textured. The cakes should be very soft and moist. Note: If using a 9-inch square cake pan, you can extend the baking time an additional 5 to 10 minutes. Test to see if they are done by inserting a skewer or toothpick, which should come out clean. Remove from oven, allow to cool on rack about 20 minutes.
7. Drizzle with the date syrup glaze, making sure the glaze reaches all over the top surface. Spread and level the glaze with a spatula. Separate the cake edges from the pan sides, using a butter knife. Open the springform molds and remove the parchment papers. Allow the glaze to set about 15 minutes. Garnish with whole dates if you wish. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Date syrup glaze
2 tablespoons melted butter (salted or unsalted)
1/2 cup date syrup
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1. In a small bowl, dissolve melted butter and date syrup in the confectioners’ sugar, stirring until well combined. You might want to adjust the quantity of the date syrup for the perfect consistency.
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole cloves
3 cups pitted dates
3/4 cup malt vinegar
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons canola oil
1. Place cinnamon and cloves in a small piece of muslin cloth. Tie with kitchen string to form a parcel.
2. Combine dates, vinegar, sugar, salt and oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add spice parcel. Cook, stirring, for several minutes, until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes or until dates are soft and mixture becomes thick. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Remove and discard spice parcel.
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup chopped dates
3/4 chopped nuts (cashews, pecans, almonds, walnuts or pistachios)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 325. In a large mixing bowl, eat the eggs until thick. Add confectioners’ sugar to the beaten egg.
2. Add the flour, salt and baking powder and mix well. Add chopped dates, nuts and vanilla. Evenly spread mixture in a thin sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes.
3. Cut into bars while warm. Sift some additional confectioners’ sugar over the bars and serve.