Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dates: Gooey Delight

Dates 1The date palm is a large family of trees that produces an astounding variety of dates, ranging from soft and sweet to dry and not-so-sweet. In the Middle East, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years compared to the few hundred here (brought by Spanish missionaries to California in the 18th century), some countries grow hundreds of cultivars. In the United States, only a few varieties are grown, limited to the hot, arid regions of California and Arizona. The semi-dry, smooth-skinned, somewhat delicate Deglet Noor accounts for the vast majority of American production, and is generally eaten out-of-hand. The cultivar prized for baking is the large, soft, very moist Medjool, grown in California from stock originally brought from Morocco. The most luxurious of these are huge, the result of careful thinning of the fruit during cultivation. All dates of all varieties are high in potassium, amino acids, vitamin A, and dietary fiber. They are also traditional soothants for intestinal disorders and sore throats; it’s even said they have a sobering effect, literally, on those who drink too much, somehow countering the effects of alcohol.
Luscious, fat, and exotic, dates are favorites at the holidays. They are a stone fruit or “drupe” like olives or peaches, with a central seed surrounded by a fleshy wall. This makes them excellent for stuffing—with cream cheese, almonds (whose shape fits nicely into the elongated cavity left by the pit), or glacé orange peel; you can roll them in coconut or, of course, dip them in dark chocolate. Date puddings (including steamed puddings), cakes, and ice creams are other popular uses. But the primary way I use them is in a seemingly endless quest to replicate Thomas’® Date Nut Loaf. Those of you of a certain age know exactly what I’m talking about, as you, too, think longingly about date-nut and cream cheese sandwiches, made as a snack after school or, if you were incredibly lucky, sent to school with you as your lunch when there was nothing else in the house. The Thomas’® loaf was very small, perhaps 10 ounces, baked in a crinkly paper liner like a muffin cup (yellow, I seem to recall), and wrapped in pre-plastic cellophane. It was very, very dark, and very, very moist, and the top—ah, the top!—was very, very gooey. It was heaven. Somewhere along the way, probably in the misguided 1970s or cost-cutting 1980s, Thomas® stopped making it except for a month or so around the holidays, and ultimately stopped making it altogether. It is now food history, and we can only, with hope and perseverance, try to remedy this egregious error of branding judgment by seeking to recreate it on our own.
Almost-Thomas® Date Nut Bread #1
This is one of several variations I’ve developed in my quest to clone the quintessential Thomas’® date-nut loaf; another adds a little graham flour and has no egg. I'm still experimenting, but for now, this one will do. Use at least a pound of best-quality dates, or you will not come anywhere near the real thing. Makes 1 loaf; may be doubled.
1 lb giant Medjool dates, pitted and quartered, halved if on the smaller side
¼ cup finely chopped glacé orange peel (optional)Date Mix 2
3/4 tea baking soda
1 T unsweetened cocoa
1 tea instant espresso powder, such as Medaglia D’Oro
½ cup boiling water
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup dark molasses
1 egg
1 tea vanilla
2 cups a-p flour
1 tea baking powder
¼ tea salt
¼ tea each ground cinnamon and cloves
1/8 tea freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup sour milk or buttermilk
½ cup shelled walnuts, broken
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a small bowl, sprinkle dates with baking soda, cocoa, and espresso powder. Pour boiling water over all, toss, and let stand while you prepare the batter.Date bread 2
Cream butter and sugar in an electric mixer, scraping the bowl well from time to time. Add molasses, egg, and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Sift together dry ingredients and add very slowly on low speed, alternating with the milk. Fold in the nuts and the date mixture by hand, turning it over and over until the dates are well distributed. The batter will be thick; spoon it into a buttered standard 8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½ loaf pan, smooth the top, and rap the pan on the counter a few times. Bake about 50-55 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and the top is brown. Turn out of the pan. And now, the secret to having any chance at all of achieving the genuine article: While still warm, double-wrap tightly in foil. Let it stand two full days on the counter before cutting to allow it to settle and densify, and the top to turn gooey. Slice thinly with a thin bladed slicing knife and serve with good cream cheese.
Date bread cut 2 Date bread cream cheese 2


Virginia said...

I have just made this for the first time and am looking forward to trying it in 2 days. I did notice however, that there was too much batter to fit into the size of loaf pan recommended in the recipe. There wasn't enough batter for 2 loaf pans, so I used a larger size. Even so, the batter was completely level with the top. It is baking now, sitting on a cookie sheet in case it spills over the edges. Is this normal? I am an experienced baker and know my ingredients were measured correctly.


Jane said...

Virginia; not sure why you had this experience, as I always use the standard size pan. One possibility is that you beat it too long, as if for a cake. I beat only until butter and sugar are creamed.

findingthemotherlode said...

I have tried this recipe with excellent results. The magic is all in the time the loaf spends on the countertop for two days.

It is the closest thing to the beloved Thomas' Date Nut Bread I grew up on in the 60's and 70's.

Thank you, Jane,for this wonderful loaf of nostalgia!

Jane said...

I am so glad this comes close to your taste memory. You are welcome, and thank you for telling me. It is why I write, for you.

sydsgrammie said...

I am going to make this for the first time. I loved Thomas Date & Nut bread. I do have a question, may I freeze the loaf after I have baked them?

sydsgrammie said...

I am going to make this for the first time. I loved Thomas Date & Nut bread. I do have a question, may I freeze the loaves after I bake them?

Jane said...

I recommend that you wrap it tightly and leave it on the counter for two days, and then you can freeze it, very well wrapped. Be careful not to overcook. Good luck with it, I hope you like it.

Anonymous said...

Florida, I made this over the Christmas Holiday and served it Christmas morning. My daughters loved it and said it was just like Thomas Date Nut bread. It is a great receipt and fairly easy to make.

Jane said...

I am SO glad this worked for you and tapped into your daughters' taste memories. That is my goal. And it is always great to hear from all of those Thomas' Date Nut Bread seekers out there. Happy New Year!