Across the Middle East there are stores dedicated to only sell dates. Their beautiful arrays of pale yellow, rich brown, and shiny golden fruit – dried, fresh, or pressed, underscores how important dates are to the cuisines of the Middle East.
Sarah Al-Hamad is an able guide to the cuisine of dates in her Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere (Interlink 2013). She travels the sun-drenched world in search of the elegant date palms and recipes.
This patchwork of sweet recipes and history, a relaxing forest of evergreen paths from desert to city and countryside, east to west, and north to south, has sustained, fascinated, and nourished me as it has countless travelers on arduous journeys. On this voyage, in the footsteps of date palms everywhere, I have learned that nothing is as local as we believe, that people are always connected by ideas, trade, knowledge, and discoveries. (p 14)
The map she includes of the Date Producers of the World (p. 15) is a map of world exploration – which makes a lot of sense since dates are nutrition powerhouses and helped keep early sailors healthy on long voyages.
Sun Bread (p. 19) turns out to be a dense sweet bread that keeps well. It’s full of almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, and dates of course. A yeast version, Seeded Loaf (p. 20), includes sunflower seeds, caraway, and date syrup. An essay on The Gulf follows, with photos of date stores – mounds of dates in various stages of ripeness, size, and variety. Sarah writes that dates are eaten to break the fast in Ramadan. She includes a date syrup flavored Flatbread (p. 32) and a Date, Pear, and Stem Ginger Jam (p. 41) called Muna’s Magic Jam. The quintessential Middle East cookie, Maamoul or Date Shortbread (p. 67) are little mounds of buttery dough filled with dates, and served with tea or coffee.
There are plenty of rich cake desserts, including Queen Elizabeth Cake or Lumberjack Cake – depending if you are in the UK or Canada (p. 82) an apple and date cake topped with coconut. Richer still is the Decadent Chocolate Torte, a flourless hazelnut, date, and prune cake (p. 96) or the more exotic Black and White Delight, a chocolate date cake with tahini and white chocolate sauce (p. 101).
Buy a large tub of dates at your local market and have fun baking with Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee. Just keep telling yourself what a nutritional powerhouse dates are — and then have another sinfully delicious slice of Sun Bread.