(This article appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
“Dates are having their moment…slated to have a major renaissance this year,” according to the annual Whole Foods Market survey, which ranked the ancient Middle Eastern fruit number four on its list of the top ten food trends for 2023. Often referred to as “nature’s candy,” dates have recently been featured in a cornucopia of sweets, indulgent to nutritious, ranging from a viral TikTok version of a Snickers Bar to the sticky toffee pudding replaying on restaurant menus, to recipes offering a healthier substitute for refined sugar using chopped and puréed dates, date sugar and syrup.
Dates play both a starring and an invaluable supporting role in Good & Sweet (Avery, 2022), a handsome and timely new book by pastry chef Brian Levy that reveals a way to bake that eliminates sugar and focuses on the natural sweetness of fruits, grains, nuts, and other whole food ingredients. “I imagined a world without sugar – that is without cane sugar, maple syrup, honey and agave nectar,” says Levy, who uses only date sugar, “really, whole dates dried and ground to a powder,” in the book’s 100 recipes. “It’s not a date cookbook,” Levy explains, though a large number of his enticing sweet treats include chopped or puréed dates. “They are easy to work with,” he continues, “and they have a subtle flavor, a lot of sugar, low water content, are not acidic, and come in a few different forms, fresh or dried.” How he uses dates varies depending on their role in his recipe. Soft, fresh, Medjools are puréed in matcha banana custard pie, pistachio cake, and date, rye, and olive oil brownies; dried Deglet Noor dates are chopped for olive oil zucchini spice cake; and any date will work in peanut butter dream date cake or hazelnut milk chocolate ice cream. Babylonian swirls, “a rolled pastry kind of like a rugelach, but just dates and cardamom,” references the history of dates, used as a sweetener long before cane sugar became available.
Levy, who spent years in the Babbo kitchen working with esteemed pastry chef Gina DePalma, provides sources for his ingredients, and while he has ordered dates from the Middle East, most come from the American date heartland, California’s Coachella Valley. While he relies on firms like Nuts.com for bulk purchases, on a trip to California last fall, Levy discovered Rancho Meladuco Date Farm’s freshly harvested organic Medjool dates. “They were just amazing” he recalls. “They were just like a purée with a pit.”
Joan Smith, one of very few women date farmers, started Meladuco almost six years ago on a family-owned Coachella Valley ranch. Concentrating primarily on prized Medjools, her business has flourished, winning accolades for quality and praised in the press. The Meladuco
website (meladuco.com) is a treasure trove of recipes, many developed with food writer Julia Heffelfinger, that reveal the versatility of dates. Unlike Levy, sugar still plays a role in Smith’s dessert repertoire, but fruits and spirits are also prized ingredients. For summer, Smith’s seasonal selections include sour cherry galette, Southern peaches ‘n date pop tarts, and strawberry date slab pie with a thyme crust. When Smith was invited to participate in the annual date festival in the UAE, it was baked apples. Partnering with a pastry chef from the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, the fruit was peeled, sauteed in butter and stuffed with chopped dates, walnuts and maple syrup before going into the oven. Among the spiked desserts, Smith soaks dates in Guinness for a dark chocolate stout loaf cake, uses Bourbon in Derby chocolate balls, and tops Lumberjack cake, an Australian-style sticky toffee pudding, with salted rum toffee sauce.
Riffs on sticky toffee pudding abound. At Jillian’s in Palm Desert, California, Chef-owner Jay Trubee’s Sous Chef is a date farmer, providing local fruit for the pudding, which is basted with whiskey-spiked butterscotch sauce; at Lord’s, an English bistro in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, it’s an ice cream. Valrhona offers two variations – one with Blond Orelys, the other with Almond and Hazelnut Praline. San Francisco-based Elizabeth Pruitt includes a not-too-sweet gluten-free sticky toffee pudding with only two tablespoons of butter in her cookbook Tartine All Day. She reminds readers to add salt to balance the sweetness of the sauce, and a squeeze of lemon juice to bring out the “caramely-ness”. For Rosh Hashanah last fall, food writer Stephanie Ganz added apples and soaked the dates in warm coffee to plump them up and for a bitter note that balances their sweetness.
Date-rich sweets, traditional at religious celebrations in the Middle East and North Africa for centuries, are now prevalent year-round. Maamoul and makroud, date filled semolina cookies, caught the eye of culinary historian Darra Goldstein when she visited the recently opened Yafa Bakery & Café in Somerville, Massachusetts. In Saveur, virtuoso pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira, recalling her childhood in Tunisia, offers a recipe for makroud with saffron-infused dough and honey orange blossom syrup. At Chopped, Chef Melanie Shurka’s Middle Eastern Kubeh in Greenwich Village, chocolate date bars are filled with pistachios, walnuts and coconut. There are some similar ingredients in Kahjoor Laddo – dates, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecan flour, poppy seeds, white chocolate and muscovado sugar – served at Surbi Sahni’s Indian restaurant, Tagmo, in lower Manhattan.
Several California-based entrepreneurs with multi-cultural backgrounds have turned their fond memories of childhood sweets into successful date-focused ventures that promote the healthy benefits of the fruit’s high fiber, low glycemic index, and nutrient rich profile. Roya Javaherchi received a degree in Food Science Engineering in Iran before emigrating to the United States in 2013. Then, after earning a master’s degree in accounting, and working in that profession, she decided to “quit my stable and predictable job” to pursue the dream of owning her own company. Sweet Saffron LLC was born in 2019, with a mission “to produce delectable, delicious, and heathy alternatives to unnatural sugary products.” Her Dateolate chocolates, made with 90 percent date paste, coated with dark or white chocolate, were recently featured on the Fine Chocolate Industry Association’s ‘Make Mine Fine’ initiative (www.makeminefine.com).
Sezen Kutlu, a Napa Valley resident raised in Turkey, spent two decades in the hospitality industry before launching Datehini in the fall of 2021, a creamy blend of Medjool dates and sesame tahini that won a Good Housekeeping Healthy Snack award for Best Sweet Spread in 2022. Noting that the product provides vitamin B 6, omega 3 fatty acids and essential minerals, the judges also declared it “decadent and satisfying.”
Dr. Sylvie Charles, the daughter of Indian immigrants and a physician in San Francisco before a spinal injury and leave of absence aroused an interest in the nutritious healing food of her childhood, entered the already burgeoning date syrup market in 2018. Her successful Just Date Syrup, made with upcycled organic Medjool dates, simmered in water, pressed and strained, won a Good Food Award in 2021 and led to an expansion of other date-related collaborations.
Date syrup, art, and food politics aligned in 2018 when Chicago-based Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz used 10,000 cans of date syrup to make a life sized replica of a Mesopotamian celestial figure, an homage to one of Iraq’s most important exports before the industry was decimated by war. After the sculpture was exhibited in London, Rakowitz invited 41 celebrated chefs and food writers to contribute recipes using date syrup for a cookbook, A House with a Date Palm will Never Starve: Cooking with Date Syrup (Art Books, 2019). The title comes from a Mesopotamian proverb extolling the many uses of the plant for food, shade, woven furniture and wood. Among the participants, Yotam Ottolenghi provided pot barley pudding with roasted apples and date syrup; Marcus Samuelsson, date and raisin chutney; and Giorgio Locatelli, date syrup ice cream, persimmon fruit salad, and chocolate chunky crumble. For date galette Chez Panisse, Alice Waters noted, “we made this galette in the earlier days of Chez Panisse. It is exciting to discover it again and to use date syrup. Dates,” she concluded, “have some kind of symbolic and magical aspect to them.”