Have we spoken about the illustrious power of dates?
While Diaspora Kitchen is dedicated to using the products of the Northeast, you could call us a little slutty. There are just a couple ingredients we use on the regular -- spices, sugar, and citrus -- that just don't happen to grow so well in the colder climes of New York and the surrounding areas. And so when we find an awesome farmer or grower somewhere in the continental US doing awesome stuff -- like the Bernards of Bernard Ranches in California, from whom we get our citrus, for example -- we will put in an order or two, or pack a suitcase full of the stuff to last us a while.
Traditionally, in places like New England and the Mid-Atlantic, dried fruits of various types have had an illustrious if occasionally ignored history -- currants or raisins in Boston brown bread, dried fig or apricot in the fillings of hamentaschen, various dried fruits in the fillings of empandas or other savories of Latin American foods, or the presence of dried apples in the apple stack cakes of the Appalachia (though variations on a theme exist throughout the bluegrass and low-country American South, with combinations of dried apple, apple butter, and apple sauce taking on different importance in certain regions....I digress).
But dates are especially compelling. The fruit of the genus Phoenix dactylifera, it is botanical kin to the palm trees that dot Los Angeles streets. Whereas many of those trees are ornamental, date palms are specifically a distinct clade within the palms because they fruit (dactylifera meaning date or finger-bearing, from the Greek). While a number of cultivars exist botanically, an interesting point of date botany is the added distinction of not only the botanical distinction between trees, but also the harvest period of a given date palm. Some, like Barhees or the common Medjool date are picked specifically when young and "soft", when their sugars are soft and syrupy and not fully developed. Semi-dry dates, such as the Deglet Noor, are "ripe" when they have lost moisture and the texture of the fruit is firmer, less chewy and moist. Dry dates, like the rarely seen outside of Algeria Thoory date, are like little packets of sandy brown sugar, brittle packages that are only ripe when they have been on the vine long enough to wick off moisture and crystallize the sugars. That the species are distinguished based upon harvest cycle is unusual within most cultivated fruits. (They also tend to ripen much like grape clusters, where whole branches will ripen at the same time, though not necessarily bunches on the same tree.)
Dates are little miracle workers in the Diaspora Kitchen. Besides being great little snacks, they also do beautiful things in baked goods, adding moisture to cakes & cookies while converting in the oven to little brown nodules of sweetness that are both tasty and mildly beguiling, Think of them as that girl in every high school romantic comedy who isn't visible but always gets good lines -- you don't always know they're there, but you like what they add to the equation. Chopped up in mandelbrot-style cookies, they make for sweet little accents alongside almonds or hazelnuts. In Persian-style lamb stews fragrant with cumin and black limes, they help elevate the sweet unctuousness of lamb abreast of the savory spices. And in our particular favorite, we mix them up with our Honeycrisp Apple and Seckle Pear compote and place it in shortcrust hand pies, where they convert into liquid brown sugar, buttressing the flavors of apple and pear, while acting as a foil to the pepperiness of our quatre epices blend.
Want the recipe? It'll be coming in a day or so!