A date with dates and chewy flapjacks
Do you remember your first date? Not the girl meets boy kind – the brown, sticky fruit with a long, smooth stone in the middle. My first date was eaten as a Christmas treat; my Mum would buy a small, wooden box, rounded at the ends with dates lined up each side of a long plastic fork. Do you remember these? The dates were slightly dry but sticky and sweet and it became taken for granted that our annual box was just part of the festivities; no-one really knew why.
Little did I imagine that I would one day live in the place where date palms first originated thousands of years ago. The United Arab Emirates is one of the biggest producers of dates in the world (3rd or 5th depending what you read). This versatile fruit is used in so many ways in Gulf cuisine and there is an annual date festival which lasts for six days. Opinion is varied and hotly contested about which variety of date is the best and even at which stage of ripeness to eat them.
The stages of ripening of dates ( in the United Arab Emirates):
- Hababaw: when the date is really tiny,
- Khalal: the date becomes green, and some people like to eat it,
- Besr: When the date is ripe and full in colour,
- Ratab: when it’s half coloured and the other half starts to brown,
- Tamer: is when it’s dried.
La Mère Culinaire answered my questions about dates. I was keen to find out more after a lovely day at her house where dates were provided at every meal, little date cakes called btheeth were eaten for breakfast and I left with bags of the best dates I had ever tasted. These were the Khlas variety, considered the best kind; others varieties include Nghal, Barhi, Khnaizi, Loulou, Yabri, Bu ma’an, Shaishi, Bucheebal (there are hundreds of varieties and they are often known by different names depending on the country).
The Khlas dates were like sticky toffees in date form, the musky sweetness offset by the fragrant flavour of some chopped fennel seeds. She told me that older people like to nibble on the green khalal dates which are quite bitter, as well as the ripe ones. Dates are used to break the fast during Ramadan, in everything from date ‘honey’, date ‘champagne’ and as an ingredient in sweet and savoury dishes. The young leaves can be eaten, the seeds ground into flour or meal for animals, the flowers added to salads, the sap turned into molasses and the oil into soap. In a desert land you can see that its versatility would be valued highly.
Sadly, my family are date-haters so I looked for a culinary cloaking device to tempt them with my delicious booty. When something tastes this good, and these sticky, moreish morsels are SO good, you just want everyone to share the pleasure. I hoped that these flapjacks wouldn’t be too sweet but they were just right. The subtle fennel flavour added a lovely dimension too. I wish I could report evangelical conversion from my brood but alas no, you’ll have to take my word that these were fabulous. They keep well too…which is just as well as I polished off the lot over many days (always with a cup of tea of course).
Sticky date flapjacks – adapted from Leon, Baking & Puddings
225g dates (weighed after stoning)
55g golden syrup
170g unsalted butter
100g caster sugar
250g jumbo (whole) or rolled oats (or a combination)
- Heat the oven to 170 C. Butter a 20cm x 20cm baking tin.
- Roughly chop the dates into small chunks.
- Melt the syrup, butter and sugar together in a large pan over a gentle heat until all the ingredients have melted (the mixture looks like liquid fudge). Stir in the oats and then the dates. Mix thoroughly.
- Put the mixture into the tin and level the surface, pressing down firmly with a spatula. Bake for about 30- 35 minutes until golden – do not overcook unless you like them crunchy. Mark into squares (4 x 4) while still warm, and remove from tin once cool.
*You could add a small amount of roughly ground fennel seeds (about 1/4 teaspoon) to the mixture if your dates do not contain them. I’ve also found a recipe from Dan Lepard which includes tahini – sounds like a very sensible combination to me.