It's not every day that the UPS guy drops 11 pounds of dates on the front porch. But that's exactly what happened at my house the week before Christmas. This bounty of palm fruit was a gift from relatives on the West Coast, who thought a product of the California sunshine might liven up our snowy Midwestern holiday.
I was excited, but it turns out that dates are not exactly the most popular fruit ever to be plucked from a tree. In some cases, this is contempt prior to investigation by people who have never tasted a date. This I attribute to the common misperception that dates are prunes and have value only as a laxative. In fact, prunes are dried plums, while dates, which are native to the Middle East, are their own proud and mighty fruit.
As I trolled around in food sites on the Internet, looking for date recipes, I encountered a fair number of hostile postings about dates. The depth of this prejudice was fairly impressive, and I am at a loss to explain it with any certainty. My best two theories are the mistaken identity problem noted above and the fact that most people who have eaten dates have tasted dried dates rather than fresh ones.
Dried dates, which are used primarily for baking, probably evolved to give the fruit a longer shelf life. Many supermarkets, at least in this part of the country, don't stock fresh dates because of low demand. The absence of fresh dates in turn keeps demand low, and so it goes.
All of this mystifies me. My mother frequently made date bars and date bread, so I never considered dates to be unusual. Also, for a child, the honey-like sweetness of dates is an easy sell. I've been less taken with some of the stuffed dates I have eaten, precisely because of this sweetness factor. Some Middle Eastern recipes call for a stuffing made of ground nuts and sugar, which produces a confection. To my palate, putting sugar inside the already sweet date is overkill.
Fresh dates are delicious by themselves, and the small, slender pit slides out easily. As I've looked for ways to incorporate dates into our diet, I've even used chopped dates in place of other fruit on hot and cold breakfast cereal.
But my favorite way to eat dates is in date bars, and my preference is for old-fashioned cake-style date bars, not those that have the date filling spread on top of an oatmeal crust. I was unable to find the recipe my mother used, but I located a likely suspect in the 1964 edition of "The Joy of Cooking" and adapted it. Using fresh dates rather than dried produces a moister date bar.
1 cup sugar
3 eggs at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups chopped dates
1 cup walnut pieces
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sift the sugar. Beat the eggs until they are light in color and texture. Add the sugar gradually and bend these ingredients until they are very light.
Sift the flour before measuring. Resift it with the baking powder, salt and spices. Add sifted ingredients to the egg mixture with the vanilla. Beat until ingredients are well-blended. Add dates and nuts and stir until they are completely incorporated into batter.
Pour the batter into a well-greased and floured 8-by-12-inch glass baking dish. (A 9-by-13-inch pan will be too large.) Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. When completely cool, cut into bars and roll in powdered sugar.
Makes 20 bars