I’ve always felt that there is something particularly decadent about dates-their almost smoky sweetness, their meaty texture-and so I was excited to discover that I’m actually the last in a very long line of civilizations who felt the same way. Rumored to have grown in the Garden of Eden, dates have appeared in the Old Testament, in King Tut’s tomb where they were buried along with him, and in the Nile Valley of Egypt where they were cultivated as far back as 3500 BCE, and were known as “candy that grows on trees.” Early Spanish missionaries first introduced dates to the Western world, and some of the original date palms or their offshoots can still be found in California, where the vast majority the U.S.’s date crop is grown.
Though dates are about 80% sugar, they’re also a great source for fiber, potassium, and copper, and provide energy for physical exercise. Soak them in milk, and they’re also a holistic soothing agent for ulcers. Because of the high sugar content, dates can be used as an all-natural and healthier sweetening alternative in the form of date sugar, date honey, and date crystals. While only sold in select stores, date sugar is delicious when combined with milk to make a date butter, or sprinkled over hot oatmeal or desserts.
Most dates you find in the supermarket have been “cured,” or dried on the tree or after picking to reduce the moisture, enabling dates to stay fresh for up to a year in the refrigerator (though they don’t need to be refrigerated for many months), and up to five years in the freezer. Medjool dates are the largest and considered the best quality, and it is always best to buy dates that have not yet been pitted, as removing the pit before storing them can dry out the dates faster.
To kick these muffins up a notch, I decided to try soaking the dates in maple syrup to give them some extra flavor. The result was delicious-both in the muffins and on their own as a snack-and the syrup kept the dates extra moist under the heat of the oven. Walnuts for crunch and a hefty dose of fresh orange zest make these muffins taste more complex than they look.
DATE (SALAD) FOR ONE
While simple to make, this salad seems just fancy enough to impress your guests-or in my case, give you something interesting and creative to make for yourself without breaking a sweat. I had bought a crusty pecan-raisin bread at the Union Square greenmarket, and was inspired to use the bread as an elevated crouton. I will devour any bread with nuts and raisins in it, and this is a great use of leftovers when bread is a few days old.
Any cheese will go nicely with this salad, but Grana Padano cheese is my latest discovery and newest obsession. In the same family as Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano is crumblier and more conducive to being eaten in chunks or large slices, as it lacks the tart aftertaste Parmigiano can sometimes have.
To top it off, the apple cider vinaigrette gives the salad some serious bite-and having wanted to make this dressing for a while, I was not disappointed.
White House Apple-Cider Vinaigrette via Martha Stewart
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tbsp orange zest (can be pared down for a less intense orange flavor)
2 tbsp melted butter, cooled
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup whole milk
1/2 egg, beaten
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup dates
1 1/2-2 cups arugula
1/2 blood orange(regular oranges are OK, too), chopped into 1/2 in. pieces
3 large chopped dates
1 slice pecan-raisin bread(or artisanal bread of your choice)
Grana Padano cheese
For White House Apple-Cider Vinaigrette
1/4 cup honey
1/8 cup apple cider vinaigrette
1 small lemon
1/2 shallot, minced
3/8 cup olive oil
Photos: Suzanne Lehrer
To Make Muffins:
1. Pour maple syrup over the dates in a small bowl until almost covered, turning them so they're well coated, and set aside for one hour or more.
2. Preheat the oven to 400. In one large bowl, mix the dry ingredients, and in another, smaller bowl, whisk the vanilla, milk and egg. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture, and mix gently until combined-adding more milk if the mixture is too dry, but taking care not to overmix. Remove the dates from the maple syrup and chop into chunks, and stir into the mixture with the walnuts.
3. Pour batter evenly into greased muffin tins, and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean.
To Make Vinaigrette:
Whisk together ingredients, adding more salt or lemon juice to taste.
To Make Salad:
1. Preheat the oven to 375. Slice a thick slide of the bread, and cut into 1/2 in. chunks. Coat the pieces of bread lightly with olive oil, and put on a tin foil lined-baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes until light brown and crunchy.
2. Combine arugula, orange pieces, chopped dates and croutons and dress with 2-3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Take a thick-slicing grater and grate the cheese in long strips over the top of the salad-or cut and crumble large pieces on top.