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The ultimate guide to date caramel

May 23, 2018

Jug of almond milk and bowl of date caramel

She’s got a nerve hasn’t she. If you are raising an eyebrow at this headline after the reference to hyperbole in my last post, I don’t blame you.

It’s surprising how many reams of text, plaudit and variations, that a simple date puree (because that is what this is) can elicit. While my desk might be a terrible mess, my collation of every inch of information is spruce so I hope you find it useful.

This sauce/spread/frosting is worth having in your fridge as it’s incredibly useful and more delicious than its meagre combination of ingredients would appear.  It’s also very virtuous and ticks all the vegan, fat-free, processed-sugar-free, dairy-free boxes and also ‘time-consuming-to-make’ free.

Which dates to use

Use the juiciest, stickiest, soft dates you can get your hands on. Medjool would be great. Rutab dates would be amazing. If in any doubt, pour boiling water over to cover and leave them for to soak for a few hours or overnight.

Blender or food processor?

There is different advice about which machine to use. Some advocate using a food processor which I did for this batch. I found that, however much I whizzed the mixture, I couldn’t eradicate some of the tiny pieces of date peel. It still made a nice fudgy, reasonably smooth texture. The other way is in a blender (such as a Vitamix) but this will require adding more liquid so you’ll get a runnier outcome. If you are making a runny sauce with very soft dates (pitted and soaked) you can get away with lots of liquid and an immersion blender. If too liquid, this firms up well in the fridge but will start to ‘melt’ as it comes to room temperature.

What’s the difference between date caramel, date icing (frosting) and date sauce?

Just the amount of liquid you put in. Less for date (icing) frosting, more for date caramel and even more for date sauce. For date fudge or truffles there is no added liquid (except for things like vanilla extract).

Slices of apple, dates and date caramel

Variations of date caramel

  • At it’s simplest, date sauce can just be dates and water blended until smooth.
  • Add different milks to taste. Unsweetened nut milks work well and will keep your caramel vegan, but you can use dairy milk or even cream.
  • Vanilla extract (not essence which has a synthetic taste) or the scraped out seeds from a vanilla pod, adds another layer of subtle, caramel-like flavour.
  • Chocolate date caramel frosting – add 65g cocoa powder and some vanilla extract after the first blend and whizz until smooth.
  • Add coconut – add 15g of dessicated coconut and use coconut milk. This makes a great frosting for cakes.
  • Salted caramel – use 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt (instead of just a pinch) and some vanilla extract. Plus you could add…
  • Nut butter – for a creamier, more substantial frosting add 60g of nut butter such as cashew or almond. Tahini adds texture and a different flavour too.
  • Salted caramel and peanut butter – add a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter plus a bit of extra salt.
  • Boozy date caramel – substitute some or all of the liquid with rum, bourbon, whisky, brandy or even something like Frangelico or Bailey’s.
  • Raw caramel fudge – equal parts of stoned dates and macadamia nuts, blended until smooth, pressed into a baking tray, frozen for 4-6 hours and then cut into squares.

Bowl of date caramel with a slice of apple

Uses of date caramel

  • Drizzled over popcorn
  • A dipping sauce – for fresh apple slices, celery stalks, bananas, soft fruit like strawberries or something sweeter like marshmallows
  • Icing (frosting) for a cake (or as a filling) or doughnuts
  • As a sweetener for hot chocolate
  • Sandwiched between biscuits (cookies)
  • Baked date caramel pudding (Google for recipe) – vegan or made with butter
  • Stirred into overnight oats, Bircher muesli, chia pudding or any other breakfast bowl.
  • A natural sweetener for porridge
  • As a delicious spread on hot, buttered toast
  • Drizzle over pancakes or waffles
  • As a topping for ice cream (vanilla works so well)
  • Layer your date caramel with chocolate nut topping to make fudge cups
  • Healthy toffee apples
  • Over profiteroles (there are vegan recipes online too if you want dairy-free)
  • Stirred into Greek yoghurt
  • Spooned over goat’s curd or paired with tangy goat’s cheese
  • Natural sweetener for smoothies, lassi or milkshakes
  • Salted caramel truffles – or any kind of date balls. This is a particularly good one. Soak dates and roasted, unsalted cashews (3/4 dates to 1 amount of cashews) in boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly and add to a food processor pulsing until a paste is formed (doesn’t have to be totally smooth). Add a couple of tablespoons of sugar or to taste (coconut or other kind of brown sugar),  a good splash of vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt. Whizz shortly to combine then roll the dough into small balls. If too soft to roll, refrigerate for 10 minutes and after rolling put them on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and pop back in the fridge for another 10 minutes. Barely melt some chocolate in a double boiler (you can add a very little coconut oil to it for a glossier finish) and dunk the truffles to cover – or just drizzle some over each one. You can sprinkle immediately with a little more sea salt too. There are various different recipes for these, some with less ingredients, some with more such as tahini. You could also roll the balls in cocoa powder.

Date caramel

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
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A simple to make, unprocessed sugar free, vegan caramel which is adaptable and versatile.


See list above for all sorts of variations and adaptations.

Ingredients

  • 240g dates – approx 20, unless using Medjool which will be 10 or less
  • 8-10 tablespoons almond milk (or other milk of your choice)
  • pinch sea salt

Directions

Unless at rutab stage of ripeness or very soft, pour boiling water over the dates and leave to steep for an hour or longer.

  1. Remove the stones and any stalks from the dates.
  2. Place the dates into a food processor or blender (see above) and whizz briefly. Add the rest of the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, blending in between each addition and using a spatula to scrape down the sides, until you reach the consistency of soft caramel. Add more liquid for pouring, less for spreading, even less or none for frosting. Firm up in the fridge or use immediately.
  3. Store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to two weeks.

date caramel and apple on a board Since discovering this simple sweetener, it’s going to be a staple in my fridge. Have you tried it or were you oblivious like me? Let me know (tag me on Instagram if you share a picture of it).

 

Date and walnut loaf

May 21, 2018

wooden board with date and walnut cake in slices

In this age of hyperbole, describing something as plain might be perceived as a negative. It pales into the background in an arena of ‘best ever’, ‘decadent’, indulgent’ and ‘sinful’ cakes, but that’s exactly what Tamasin Day-Lewis says about this loaf in her introduction. Her recipes are a staple in my kitchen (I have five of her cook books) so I had every confidence that this loaf would deliver – in spades. You see I also think that plain is a good thing, especially in tea loaf. Plain means you need a cup of tea (or coffee) to perfectly partner your slice to get you through the morning or afternoon. Plain, after all, encompasses such classics as rich tea biscuits and digestives. And plain has another advantage. It practically begs for you to smear it with a thick layer of butter.

“A plain but good sweet and nutty cake that you may also eat with butter and which you can stir up in a trice. Child’s play” is a preface that has me rooting out a loaf tin and preheating the oven immediately.

On that very topic, while I love Tamasin’s writing and her recipes usually guide you by the hand as though your Mum was whispering the instructions in you ear, this one was uncharacteristically sketchy. It didn’t even mention the oven temperature, but that’s what recipe testing is all about.

Originally I renamed this recipe a ‘tea loaf’ as I thought that a tea loaf was part of afternoon tea. However, I think a tea loaf refers to a cake that is made by soaking dried fruit in tea overnight first, such as Welsh Bara Brith, Irish Barmbrack or a Yorkshire tea loaf. A tea loaf is very moist and fruity, this loaf is much drier but that’s why…. butter.

Which variety of date to use for this? Mine were Khalas, soft, sticky and slightly chewy. I haven’t used rutab stage of ripeness which would give a very different texture.

This loaf is a firm, close textured, warming and comforting that’s not sticky despite the dates. It is excellent with good butter, but also with goat’s curd or labneh. A thin slice of hard cheese wouldn’t go amiss either. Just don’t forget to put the kettle on.

Date and walnut loaf

  • Servings: 8-10 slices, makes a 900g loaf
  • Difficulty: easy
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A loaf packed with the goodness of dates and nuts, and a warmth of spices, that begs to be spread with butter and eaten with a cup of tea.

[Simple to make by hand, but even easier with a stand-mixer (instructions for KitchenAid included). Adapted from Tamasin Day-Lewis]

Ingredients

  • 225g (8oz) (approx 240g before destoning) pitted dates, chopped
  • 110g (4oz) light brown or muscovado sugar
  • 140g (5oz) unsalted butter
  • 2 level teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 120ml (4floz) boiling water
  • 1 large egg (free range), beaten
  • 400g (14oz) plain or wholemeal flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • 55g (2oz) walnuts, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (not essence)
  • 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice

Directions

  1. Cut the butter into small pieces. Put the chopped dates, sugar, butter and bicarbonate of soda into a mixing bowl (or the bowl of your mixer). Pour over the boiling water and stir thoroughly (or mix briefly and slowly using the paddle attachment). Leave to soak overnight if possible, or for a least an hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 170 C or 160 C (fan). If you have a fast oven go for the lower temperature as this is a long bake and high temperatures will cause the dates to burn.
  3. Grease and line a loaf tin (22 x 14 cm or thereabouts) with baking paper/parchment.
  4. Add the egg, sift in the flour (I found it easy to take the bowl off the mixer, place a sieve on top and sift in the weighed flour). Add the salt, chopped walnuts, vanilla extract and mixed spice and beat the mixture well with the paddle attachment on a mixer or a wooden spoon. The batter should look silky and become quite stiff.
  5. Scrape the mixture into the loaf tin and level the top with a spatula. You could push some whole walnuts in a line down the top at this stage if you wanted.
  6. Bake for an hour or until a skewer, when inserted, comes out clean. Do not over bake.
  7. Leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then turn out, remove the baking paper and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight tin.

*Mixed spice is a traditional British mixture of spices used for making cakes. It is typically made up of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves.

wooden board with date and walnut cake in slices

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So are you with me on the virtues of plain?

A short guide to date varieties

May 20, 2018
tags:

Four types of date on a plate

I must confess to having food geek tendencies. When in a car, driving to Sharjah with my friend Arva to do one of her food tours, I confessed to her that I had, on a spur of the moment whim, set myself a goal of posting about dates for every day during Ramadan. Instead of telling me what a crazy idea this was she exclaimed “That’s great”, with genuine enthusiasm and started to regale me with some of the fascinating details about this fruit that has played such a central part in so many cultures. If I’m a food nerd, she’s a food geek crossed with a brain that functions as an encyclopedia. She even told me the origin of the name and rattled off the Latin – it’s Phoenix Dactylifera by the way.

This tale of the name is a long and complicated one so I’ll save it for another day. Arva also suggested you should use different types of dates for different recipes which led onto the topic of the stages of ripeness (see below).

We got to Sharjah in the shimmering late afternoon. The deep waters of the creek reflected the grand domed buildings on the opposite side. Abras (small ferry boats) and dhows (larger wooden boats) bobbed lazily in their moorings. The shadows were long and all was very peaceful; a gentle, calming prelude to the end of another day of fasting during Ramadan.

Everyone gathered and the tour started, taking in the historic, old Heart of Sharjah, the large mosque dating from the 1800s and the souqs (markets). More about this anon.

We were sitting drinking gahwa – the local coffee which the mother of our Emirati guide Fatima, had ground the beans (from Sri Lanka) by hand for us. While we sipped the refreshing, slightly fruity, hot drink from little paper cups, Arva ambushed us with a pop quiz about dates.  If you are going on her tour you might not want to read the following (unless you want to cheat and get full marks that is). We tasted…

dates on a plate with their names

Three varieties of dates

  • Medjool rutab – one of the most famous dates and this is unsurprising. The ones we tasted were plump, soft and juicy, with a luxurious, melt in your mouth texture. There’s a brightness about the taste which offsets the sweetness so they’re not cloying. And they are absolutely huge.
  • Ajwa – a small, dark, almost black date with a smooth skin. It gives an intense, deep treacle-like flavour as soon as you pop it in your mouth. Very smooth in taste and texture.
  • Sukkary rutab – very sweet, juicy and yielding. Sukkary dates are the very sweetest – and indeed sukkary means ‘the sweet one’. The distinctive yellowish skin of this acorn-shaped date is very creased, and because of the crystallised sugars they contain can be slightly crunchy.
  • Sukkary dried – we also tasted a dried or tamer sukkary date to compare the difference. They were chewier and some crunchiness was very apparent especially near the stem. The concentration due to being dried meant they were even sweeter.

The Khalas (or Khlas) variety is very popular in the UAE, with a soft, sticky texture and caramel flavour, many consider it to be best; other 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). This is why it’s called a short guide; the full version would be a life’s work.

The stages of ripeness in dates

  • Hababawk – when the date is really tiny*
  • Khalal (or khalaal) – the green unripe stage, and some people like to eat them, especially the older generation of Emiratis, but it’s an acquired taste
  • Besr – this is when the date is just starting to ripen on the tree, it changes colour and is still crunchy
  • Rutab (ratab) – the fresh date is fully ripe in taste and colour; lusciously soft and juicy within a papery thin skin.  They are only available for a few short weeks in the summer months
  • Tamr (or tamar) – is the dried date that we are most used to. Some of the moisture has evaporated so the dates can be stored. There are very many textures of dried dates.

*Arwa, an Emirati friend, gave me this term

Date quiz

Here are the questions – as dates are such a huge topic the answers and the discussion that followed is abbreviated but you get the gist.

A question of sex

Avra asked us whether if dates palms are male or female? There are both types and some varieties are bisexual so to speak. The male palms don’t bear fruit and one male tree can fertilise around fifty female trees. Dates can be planted from a seed but then the origin and sex of the tree can’t be predicted, so they are usually grown from cuttings that grow from the base of the plant. Emiratis plant date palms wherever they have space, on grass verges and small patches of land outside their houses. Early one morning you might spot a man hauling himself up the trunk of a tree by a kind of long belt; as the fruit-bearing females are most desirable, dates are usually pollinated by hand using the efflorescence from the male tree.

Not a cheap date

The Ajwa dates are the most expensive, even more than the prized Medjool. This is because they are from Medina in Saudi Arabic and were the favourite of the Prophet Muhammed. The name means to ‘wean off’ as dates were often used to wean children off their mother’s milk. *The date palm is mentioned more than any other fruit-bearing plant in the Qur’an. The date is referred to as tuhfat Maryam (precious gift to Mary, Mother of Jesus) as it was this fruit that nurtured her throughout childbirth (al-Tha’alibi Thimar 1 106).

Blame the parents

Where does the name Medjool come from? As the palm tree can originate from a seed, and through cross-pollination of different trees, lead to new varieties (very like the grapevine), no one really knows where it first came from. However this uniquely delicious date was named ‘prized orphans’ due to its unknown lineage.

A thorny subject

Yes, dates do have thorns which grow around the central bud or heart at the very top of the tree. If the heart is removed or damaged the tree will die.

How would you have fared in the quiz?

Three types of dates on a plate

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We left Sharjah for Dubai, the main roads unusually quiet as people had returned to their homes and families to eat and congregate. Arva fetched some date samples from the fridge in her house (fresh, rutab dates must be kept cool to preserve them) to send me home with. I also clutched a slender, volume under my arm, called Dates-A Global History by Nawal Nasrallah. There is so much still to learn about this plant that has sustained people over centuries. On awakening I read two chapters and on my dog walk with Hazel I was peering at date flowers and inspecting the green fruit very carefully.

Next time I’ll get top marks in the date quiz – I hope.

*Source: Sweet delights from a thousand and one nights – Habeeb Salloum, Muna Sallloum and Leila Salloum Elias

Two dressings for salad: Citrus date and balsamic date

May 19, 2018

chopping board with jug of salad dressing and cucumbers

If you type ‘date recipes’ into the search bar in Pinterest you’ll be inundated with energy balls, no bake bars, raw brownies, shakes, smoothies and masses of paleo stuff (also a few for date night). It’s all very sweet – perhaps unsurprisingly as dates are. However, if you know me at all, the absence of a sweet tooth means that I’m looking for some savoury options. Apart from bacon wrapped dates (which, although delicious, are not very appropriate during Ramadan) the non-dessert recipes using dates are a bit thin on the ground.

Historically, there were no division of courses and sweet dishes were served throughout the meal. Many foods were a mixture of sweet and savoury. In Tudor times many new foods and spices were being discovered and imported, such as nutmeg and sugar from the New World. Henry the Eighth’s banqueting table would have been filled with things like loin of veal adorned with sugar plums and pomegranate seeds, sweet potatoes with rose and orange syrup, and veal “chawettys” – a meat pie made with minced veal, dates and raisins.

My thoughts turned to salad dressings; after all, honey and mustard dressing is one of the most popular so why not use dates as the sweetener? I tinkered with a few versions in my kitchen but couldn’t get it quite right. Then I found a video on YouTube for a recipe so simple, I didn’t believe it would be that great, but was proved wrong. I’m ambivalent about it being oil-free, but you might like this. It packs a citrussy zing that’s fresh and bright poured over greens like lettuce or cucumber. Salads with carrots or parsley (or both) will benefit too as the orange pairs perfectly.

You don’t have to stick with orange and lemon either. Pink grapefruit, or even yuzu if you can get it, would work well.

A dressing that stands up to some stronger salad ingredients like shredded cabbage or radishes is one based on balsamic vinegar. This is from Anna Jones’ book A Modern Way to Eat which is one of the most well-used cookery books in my kitchen. She uses it to coat a crunchy salad based on pad thai but without the noodles. You could leave out the chilli if you want to make it more all-purpose.

Both dressings don’t do well hanging around so best to use immediately.

Citrus date salad dressing

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Difficulty: easy
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A fresh, light, zingy, oil-free dressing to pour over salad leaves.

Chopping the dates up a bit first is important. You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it until smooth but, because of the small quantity, it can easily heat up in a Vitamix so don’t try putting them in whole.

Ingredients

  • 2 oranges, juiced
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 4 dates, pitted
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions

  1. Add the juice of the lemon and oranges (or whichever citrus juice you use) to your blender. You should have about 250ml of liquid.
  2. Remove the stones from the dates and chop quite finely (see notes).
  3. Put the dates and salt into the blender (it’s important that the liquid goes in first for machines like a Vitamix).
  4. Blend until combined (but don’t whizz for too long in case the dressing starts to heat). This is not a thick dressing as there is no oil to emulsify it. You could add some olive oil to make it thicker at this point (give it a good shake to combine).
  5. Use immediately. Really good with soft salad leaves like lettuce or watercress.

A jug of citrus salad dressing

And here’s a good all-rounder especially for crunchy salads.

Spicy balsamic date dressing

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
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A robust and moreish dressing which is delicious poured over chopped cabbage, carrot, radishes and other crunchy salads.

You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it smoothly. In theory you could pound the dates and chop everything finely by hand if you can be bothered.

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe, plump dates, stones removed and coarsely chopped
  • 100g cashew nuts, soaked overnight in water
  • a small knob of fresh ginger (about 2cm) peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 fresh red chilli, seeds removed and finely chopped
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 150ml water

Directions

  1. Put all the ingredients into a blender and whizz until smooth. It should be loose enough to pour but thick enough to coat your salad veg. Add a little more water if needed.
  2. Use immediately

chopping board with jug of salad dressing and cucumbers

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Sources:  A Tudor Banquet, Anna Jones

This is my second post for my 30 days of dates challenge. Please feel free to join in and share your date recipes here or on Instagram. Have you used dates in a salad dressing? Are you a sweet or savoury person?

Date and vanilla lassi

May 18, 2018
tags: ,
glass of date lassi and plate of biscuits

Date and vanilla lassi

We had a box of dates, once a year at Christmas, when I was growing up. They came in a long, thin, lidded, cardboard case with rounded corners, and were arranged along the sides of a plastic stem which doubled-up as a two-pronged fork to save your fingers from stickiness. They were always from Tunisia; I’m not sure who ate them.

As I wander along the aisle of my local supermarket now, the date section is mind-bogglingly with choice; shelves laden with a huge array of different types, shapes, sizes, descriptions and prices. There are more than 1,500 varieties of dates worldwide, and about 42 million date palms in the U.A.E. I’m writing this as steamy dusk falls (it’s 32 C) and the first Iftar of Ramadan is about to begin. It’s impossible to imagine how people survived here, before air conditioning, with just the breezes caught by tall vents made of palm fronds, called wind towers, to cool them. Resources were precious with dates, camel milk and coffee at the heart of life.

It’s traditional for Muslims to break their fast by eating three dates, as the Prophet Muhammed did.  Dates are offered at communal Iftars, given as Ramadan gifts and as an ingredient of different pastries and sweets, which is why they abound on the supermarket shelves.

People who have grown up with dates (not just at Christmas) have a different attitude to them. They eat them at all stages of their growth: green and under-ripe, while still crunchy and fresh, ripened and juicy, and dried and sticky. Which country the best dates come from is hotly contested.

three glasses of date lassi on a trayI’ve had a big tub of dates from Saudi Arabia in my kitchen, left over from a photography session, and they’ve started to creep into my cooking and food preparation – not just as a mid-afternoon snack. It got me thinking of how many ways to use them and perhaps a series of date recipes. Can I do thirty days of dates? Let’s see. It would be a challenge, and I respond to a challenge. Are you up for it?

My first recipe is a simple one, a cooling lassi to temper the heat of food and climate. The alchemy of the ingredients is magic though – like smooth caramel, vanilla ice cream in a glass.

It’s based on the Punjabi style lassi without the addition of water. I’ve used a mixture of milk and yoghurt but also tried it with 100% laban (a drinking yoghurt that’s readily available here). You could use plant-based milk products as well.

The level of sweetness depends on you. Indian sweets are tooth-achingly so – and some lassi recipes call for an amount of sugar, honey or dates which is way too sickly for my tastes. If you are pouring over ice you can get away with it being a little sweeter though. You need a powerful blender to make it (I use a Vitamix). Pour a little boiling water over the dates and leave them to soften overnight if your machine is a little on the wimpish side.

Please don’t use vanilla essence or flavouring; the taste will put a synthetic dampener on the whole thing. You can make your own vanilla extract (it’s not sold in supermarkets here in Dubai due to the alcohol base). Local Dubai kitchenware shop Tavola sells a real version which is alcohol-free.

A pinch of sea salt wouldn’t go amiss here either, for a salted caramel vibe.

Date and vanilla lassi

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
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A cooling drink with a deep, caramel flavour. It's more of a dessert-style drink than a regular smoothie. Frothy, creamy and good served over lots of ice.

You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it smoothly.

Ingredients

  • 250ml Greek yoghurt (or plant-based alternative)
  • 250ml milk (use full-fat regular milk or another of your choice e.g. almond milk)
  • 7-10 dates (depending on how sweet the dates are and your taste)
  • 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract (or seeds from a vanilla pod)
  • Generous pinch of sea salt (optional)

Directions

  1. Measure the yoghurt and milk (or 500ml laban) into your blender.
  2. Remove the stones from the dates. This is easy (if sticky) to do with your hands – just pull the dates apart to reveal the stone, pick it out and discard.  Put the dates into the blender (it’s important that the liquid goes in first for machines like a Vitamix).
  3. Add the vanilla extract (or seeds) and salt if using.
  4. Blend really well until the lassi is really smooth and frothy.
  5. Pour into 2 or 3 glasses over lots of ice. Drink immediately.

Three glasses of frothy date and vanilla lassi

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I used a very low aperture (blurry backgrounds) on these images and a Kim Klassen preset which is quite desaturated and moody. I really like the look but interested to know what you think.

Are you with me for the date marathon? Is a whole month (during Ramadan) of daily posts possible (or even desirable?!). Do you remember the date boxes (do they still exist?).

How to work with influencers more effectively

May 13, 2018

a scrabble board

Brands are clamouring for influencers to help spread their message. Marketing budgets are fragmented to include digital content across a range of platforms. PRs have a tough job targeting traditional media and then this new group of opinion-formers comes along in a competitive landscape which shifts like sand.

When I started my blog eight years ago there was no such thing as an ‘influencer’.  But over time, as brand collaborations became a way of generating income for content creators (and a new generation of influencers entered the sphere with this as their end goal).  As a result, there’s a lot of advice directed at influencers on how to contact PRs and brands that result in a working relationship. But I’ve found less information from an influencer perspective.

So how do brands and PRs connect and collaborate with online influencers in a way that benefits both parties and leads to all end goals being met? This is my personal experience from a food and travel angle, plus I’ve asked some top content creators in the UAE what they think.

I’d love to hear from PRs, brands and influencers alike. Please share your perspective (in the comments) and add to the conversation.

If you came here for food and travel, I hope you’ll enjoy this window into an ever-changing new industry.

Scrabble letters, a cup of tea and a notepad

So how do you nurture a loyal band of collaborators who reply to every email, share content in a meaningful way and come to events with enthusiasm? Here are a few ideas…

9 ways to work with influencers more effectively:

1. Research

Take time (and it does take time) to look at what the person posts. By really getting to know them you can determine which influencers you should be working with.
Look at their engagement (not just the number of followers), read the comments, inspect their content. Is there is a repetitive list of the same followers with three word comments just saying how wonderful everything is, or are there real, invested conversations?

And look beyond the number of followers. Audience does not equal influence.

2. Build a relationship

PRs may talk to journalists, but influencers live in a digital world. Foster a relationship there. I don’t think a PR has ever left a comment on my blog and only one or two interact with me on Instagram.

Take time look at what they post. Engage with them on Twitter or Instagram build a relationship. Work for the long term, so when you do get in touch with a request they will already know you and are more likely to respond favourably.

Factor in the changing nature of the industry and approach influencers in a very different way to journalists…

3. Tailor

There are two strands to this one. Ask the influencer what they would like from the experience or collaboration. Contact your potential partners and find out what it is they’d really like in an ideal world. Target with things they actually want to do (for a better take up). If it’s too much you can meet somewhere in the middle.

To quote Kate Baxter of Be More Hive from a recent episode on the Blogtacular podcast, who often sees sign off on quite traditional PR strategy approaches that don’t work on an influencer level:

..something that is adapted from an approach that they might traditionally have used with print press which is not really the approach that you can take with influencers. Each influencer, whether that be a blogger, a vlogger, or someone who purely has an Instagram account with 100s of thousands of followers, they are their own person who retains complete editorial control over absolutely everything they do and so they are the person who makes the decision on every single aspect of the content they are creating and that also putting their own personal viewpoint across in that content in a way that traditional print media doesn’t.

The second aspect is that at events or on media trips there is often one amazing set up, view or experience – but you then get the same identical coverage from all the people there. By finding out what the influencer (and therefore their audience) would like you can tailor elements so they have bespoke, unique and more impactful content.

4. Personalise

No matter how enticing the offer or interesting the proposition, being addressed as ‘Dear Blogger’ is so off-putting and causes the hackles to rise. I’d rather someone just said Hello than get lumped into one homogenous influencer morass! (I’m sure the ‘Dear Editor’ press releases get short shrift across the board too).

I received a parcel the other day with my name handwritten on the outside, a mock-up of a passport containing stamps to all the countries I’ve visited in the last two years and a postcard with an image of me on it (yes they’d stalked me on Instagram). Not everyone has the time or budget to personalise an invite to this degree, but it definitely made me feel very special and almost duty bound to attend the event when it’s announced.

5. Don’t send press releases

Even for journalists, according to Janet Murray, press releases are generally ineffective. Even less so for influencers – most of whom share things from a personal perspective (and if the release is just reproduced online, I’d question the value to, or engagement of, any target audience). My inbox is inundated with so many emailed releases that I created a rule which puts them straight into one folder so I can scan the headlines and delete quickly. Sometimes they do contain something which I want to share but it’s in a format that makes it too time consuming and difficult so….

6. Send shareable content

Everyone wants useful, information, entertaining shareable content for their platforms. Often a press release will highlight something that my audience would be interested in. Two pages of detailed information in a release and a high res image that I have to download usually gets put straight into trash.  To make it shareable I suggest one or two lines communicating the main point (less than the 250 characters that Twitter demands ideally), a lo res image that is in a format for social (in size and content – no line ups of executives in suits please) plus a link to the rest of the info so people can to find out more. Social tags and relevant hashtags would also help the client gain exposure. If I want to know more I’ll reply to the email.

7. Use one method of communication

You receive an invitation by email, check your Instagram messages*  and there it is in duplicate, then the phone rings about the same event. Responding or even deleting takes time. It’s worth finding out the preferred method of communication from your list of influencers (you could do a quick survey and store in your database).

*For instance, I include my email in my Instagram profile as Instagram messages are time-consuming to manage (you can’t bulk delete and have to respond on your phone) – I presume influencers with a huge following have a VA to assist with this.

8. Interact

Likes and comments are the currency of the digital world. Brands, in the main, assume that the influencers will do all the work and completely miss the point of amplified reach through sharing user-generated content. It’s staggering the amount of times that a brand fails to respond to being tagged or using a hashtag (that they have asked you to use). Whether an official collaboration or not, you put out a post and it’s tumbleweed.  Brands will benefit from being seen to be commenting on feeds, and joining the conversation. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘social’ media.

9. Manage expectations

Both parties should agree in writing everything that is expected before the initiative. A request after the event ‘can you just post this on your Instagram feed’ when this was not part of the agreement undervalues the time, effort and effectiveness of the influencer’s work. Again it’s about understanding what goes into the content creation. If unsolicited freebies are sent to an influencer, it is up to them whether they post anything (or nothing). If goods, trips, experiences are received with assent then a realistic amount of coverage should be agreed.

Scrabble game, cup of tea and phone

Three content creators share their personal viewpoint

I asked “What are the areas that frustrate you or could be much more effective when PRs approach you (and ultimately achieve a tangible benefit for the client)?” Here are the replies (unedited).

Samantha Wood, founder of impartial restaurant review website www.foodiva.net and curator of dine around experiences

“The list is endless but here are my top three pointers:

  1. The first golden rule of any type of media engagement is for the PR to understand the social media platforms of the person they are engaging with. Having been a PR for 17 years I know the value in building relationships. Read my website including pages that explain my editorial policy and advertising/ partnership activations – and review my social media channels. I get very frustrated when PRs pitch to me yet have no idea that my business is digital only, let alone having read it. For instance, a PR might invite me to review a new restaurant – yet not having read my site, they are unaware of my no freebies anon policy.
  2. Pitch suggestions in line with the type of content/ different sections of my website. Personally I prefer email correspondence and perhaps Twitter for short and sweet ideas. I don’t like being pitched on IG or FB – or even worse WhatsApp. If I have a good relationship with the PR, I am happy to take a phone call to discuss the pitch.
  3. Do NOT send me press releases or download links unless I have requested hi-res photos – PRs are wasting their time and mine. My inbox is flooded every day with PR requests, which I don’t have the time to read. A menu, plus two or three bullet points of the restaurant/ food concept’s USPs in the body of the email is all that I need – plus some good low-res images to help paint a picture.”
lady in a restaurant

Samantha Wood

Rupal Bhatikar of Foodie n Fabulous food and travel blog

“My biggest pet peeve with PRs has always been the lack of research into the bloggers niche. It hugely benefits brands to work with people who would add value to a campaign if their audience/content is relevant to the brand. Being a food (recipe) & travel blogger, I get ridiculous number of restaurant/spa/lifestyle invites that are completely irrelevant to what I do. It is not enough to send a blanket email to anyone and everyone, due diligence is critical. It is also as important for them to expect transparency from the influencer side – sharing stats critical to study if campaigns have actually been effective. Similarly, using #sponsored and disclosures should be a given considering how much time and money is at stake and PR’s should be working only with legitimate influencers who actually follow these ethics/conduct. That is the only way going forward this industry can be regulated and work better for all parties involved.”

Lady in restaurant

Rupal Bhatikar

Naomi D’Souza – Leading Instagrammer and blogger

“I personally think the first step is, empathy. PRs must know it takes a lot of time to blog – managing a website plus creating quality content, editing pictures after a review and most importantly being able to come up with a creative tactic to promote a specific brand every single time.

I understand it’s mostly the client and not the PR who come up with deadlines and requests, but I do feel it’s the PR’s responsibility to spread knowledge on what bloggers go through just to create one piece of content. If things are rushed up the quality gets compromised that further ruins the bloggers personal brand, this even ends up ruining future potential collaborations.

There are a few PR agencies that understand the effort taken by bloggers but I believe it must be talked about more.”

magazine page

Naomi D’Souza

What’s next for PR and influencers?

My aim in writing this is as a constructive way to achieve greater results in a partnership together; I do not underestimate the hard work that goes into PR especially in a competitive and ever-changing business landscape (especially as, with a career in marketing communications, I see both sides of the fence). I’m sure that some PR and brands are shouting at the screen right now saying “but you have no idea about x”.

Recommend giving the Blogtacular podcast a listen. It’s about finding good examples, learning how to do it right and setting some industry standards.

How do we move closer together in collaboration to achieve the aims of both sides? Maybe we should have a huge meet-up where we all get together regardless of who or what company we work for. Let me know in the comments.

Scrabble board, cup of tea, phone

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Found this useful? You might like 10 things learned from 5 years of food blogging, What is Blogtacular and why you should attend and How a photography challenge could improve your Instagram

What makes a good Hot Cross Bun and where to find one

April 1, 2018

hot cross buns on a board with a cup of tea

The French are very good at seasonal baking and cakes, with things like Galette des Rois and La Chandeleur. Apart from Christmas, the English staples seem to have fallen by the wayside, except for the Hot Cross Bun. In the UK they can be found all year round now apparently, but here in Dubai they make an appearance the week before Easter then disappear. This is just as it should be in my book!

Why are they called Hot Cross Buns? They used to be served warm from the oven on Good Friday and they have a cross on them.

The origin of Hot Cross Buns is shrouded in a bit of mystery and varying tales, but while they have been given Christian meaning in more recent times they are thought to have a pagan origin or even have roots with the Romans. Their popularity gained in the 1600s as sugar and spices transported from across the world became cheaper and more abundant.  Crosses are now made of pastry but were probably just a mark made with a knife in olden days. Their consumption was regulated by Queen Elizabeth I who decreed that they could only be eaten on Good Friday and at burials or for Christmas. If you were caught baking them on any other day you had to donate the lot to the poor.

lots of hot cross buns a cup of tea and a teapot

Marks and Spencer hot cross buns

There are various superstitions attributed to these spiced baked spheres too. From warding off evil spirit to keeping bread fresh and free from mould throughout the year if hung from the rafters of your kitchen. This was taken to extremes in some cases and there some Hot Cross Buns exist which are over 100 years old and have been passed down through generations.

So what makes a good Hot Cross Bun?

These are eaten on Good Friday as they mark the end of Lent where eggs, butter and sugar, have been given up as fast for forty days (or at least used to be). All of these things are packed into these spiced, fruited buns.  A traditional Hot Cross bun should be topped with a slightly sticky glaze to make them glorious shiny and a cross. Some people pipe the cross, others roll out a little pastry to make a slightly thicker, neater one. It should be plain though, just flour and water (we will tackle the thorny problem of novelty shortly). The texture of the bun should be light, reasonably fluffy and rich from the egg and milk but plain enough not to be sickly when combined with fruit. Any added sweetness to the dough must be barely noticeable.  Plump raisins and soft, tangy candied peel must be dotted through the bun evenly.

How to eat a Hot Cross Bun

When fresh from the oven, within a couple of hours, the buns should be soft enough to prise apart, spread with butter and eat plain. Any older than they are best toasted before anointing with your best butter – whether salted or unsalted is up to you but I favour the former. Traditionally additions like jam or marmalade should not be necessary, and I think the bun is sweet enough not to need it. Naturally, you should always accompany one with a cup of tea.

hot cross buns and a cup of tea plus cookbook

Baker and Spice hot cross buns

Three methods of making a Hot Cross Bun

Why do Hot Cross Buns differ in texture and taste? There are several bread making techniques (and these are a risen bready bun).

Slow-rise

This involves taking a starter made of dried yeast or natural yeasts from the atmosphere combined flour and water that froths into a ‘sponge’. The dough itself is left overnight in a cool place to slowly rise and let the gluten develop. It typically uses much less yeast in proportion to flour.

Yeasted

I have called this yeasted for want of a better term. These are the type of bun you are most likely to make in your home kitchen. You add yeast to the other ingredients, knead and leave to prove at room temperature for an hour or two, then you knead again, shape and leave for a second prove before baking.

Quick rise, Chorleywood process or activated dough development’ (ADD)

In the 1960s, a method was invented in the UK which enabled large units to manufacture cheap, fluffy bread, with little or no proving, using additives and enzymes. This how the buns, sold in packs, in the supermarkets are made. ‘The Shocking Truth about bread’ is an article with a good explanation.

Hot Cross Bun variations

No surprise here. I’m a traditionalist and like a classic bun made by hand with care and to the specifications described earlier on what makes a good one. Invention is not necessarily a bad thing if it improves on the original. This year I’ve seen replacements for the dried fruit, flavoured glazes, savoury buns with bacon crosses, additions of Marmite and seeds, and even some made in the shape of Miffy the rabbit.  My friend Miss Foodwise adds a little grated carrot to the dough for a lighter crumb. The recipe I use is further down the page.

hot cross buns with letters spelling out hot cross buns

Lafayette Gourmet hot cross buns

The best Hot Cross bun in Dubai

This taste test all started when Marks and Spencer sent me a parcel of buns out of the blue. I decided to get my hands on as many as possible to see which I like best. Baker & Spice and Jones the Grocer sent some and Russell Impiazzi from Lafayette Gourmet delivered his personally on Good Friday. I bought some from Spinneys and Lime Tree Cafe.

Quick rise

Marks & Spencer

I was given five varieties of bun and was very intrigued by the flavours.  The Luxury traditional were my favourite, not too sweet with a good proportion of sultanas, currants, orange and lemon peel. The cranberry and orange also worked well as the cranberries added a tangy sharpness. Surprisingly the dark chocolate and salted caramel fudge was not bad in flavour – a sort of riff on pain au chocolate. The blueberry buns were far too sweet with a strange cooked taste to the fruit, and the Bramley apple were like bottled apple sauce in a bun – just wrong. The texture of all was soft, light and a bit pappy as the production method dictates. They were much better toasted but not that satisfying. The glaze had soaked into the bun so none were shiny.

Spinneys

These are the Fine Fare brand made by Spinneys in the UAE. They had kept their shape and were reasonably shiny with the glaze. The texture was similar to the M&S ones, they had a nice smattering of plump fruit and a subtle spice. For my tastes, the dough was far too sweet and I struggled to finish one, even tempered with butter. They were the most economical of all tasted.

Yeasted

Lafayette Gourmet

Chef Russell Impiazzi delivered these himself having just finished a children’s Easter cookery class which he’d baked these for. He apologised that there was no peel and chocolate chips instead of fruit due to the demands of his children. The appearance was the best of all the buns I tested; regular in shape, neat crosses and a wonderful, glistening glaze on top. I took a quick picture and wolfed one down immediately. They were nicely spiced, the dough unsweetened (I think) giving a nice foil to the dark chocolate.

Lime Tree Cafe

These buns were part of the array of decorated Easter goods spread over tables in Lime Tree. They looked the part but were the most expensive of all the buns I tested as even take away comes with butter and jam (I declined but the price did not adjust). The texture was fluffy, open and soft enough to pull apart, but the spicing level way too intense – the dough itself looked light brown due to the amount used – the cinnamon and clove left a bitter aftertaste.

Jones the Grocer

Gleaming with a very sticky almost jammy glaze, these were a generous size with a very homemade looking cross (not a bad thing!). The texture was good – needed slightly more time to prove I think as the crumb was not as open as the LG ones. The spice was very subtle, more of a warm after taste. Sultanas and soft pink peel dotted through for tanginess rather than sweetness. On the edges some of the crosses had gone hard and chewy – but overall a good bun.

Slow rise

Baker & Spice

This was a much denser bun, fresh from the oven really excellent with just butter, and by the end of the day better toasted. The spice was spot on and the sweetness provided by the glaze not the dough. There was a really good sharp tang and soft citrus bits from chunky homemade orange jam that’s used instead of peel. I had another taste of these with the Dubai Eye team on radio where we sampled a chocolate version too. The traditional Hot Cross Bun met with enthusiastic approval but the chocolate bread studded with chocolate was thought not to be chocolatey enough. I think these would be nice with a sweetened cream, cinnamon butter or dunked in hot chocolate – all not really HCB territory.

hot cross buns on a cake stand

Home made hot cross buns

Make your own Hot Cross Buns

As the name says, these are really best with the warmth of the oven still a memory. They are not difficult to bake and very satisfying when you pull them apart.

Traditional Hot Cross Buns

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A seasonal bun enjoyed just before Easter, which is best homemade

Ingredients

Ingredients

  • 250g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 250g plain white flour
  • 125ml warm water
  • 125ml warm milk
  • 5g fast-action dried yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 medium free-range egg
  • 50g butter
  • 100g sultanas and currants (or a mixture of dried fruit)
  • 1 dried apricot, cut into small pieces or 1 tsp homemade mixed peel
  • finely grated zest of half an orange
  • 1 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • pinch allspice

For the crosses:

  • 50g strong plain white flour
  • 1tbsp sunflower oil
  • 2-3tbsp water (or enough to make the dough into piping consistency)

To finish:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 50ml orange juice

Directions

  1. You can do this by hand but the dough is sticky so I recommend using a food processor or free-standing mixer with a dough hook.  Warm the water, milk and butter together very gently until the butter melts and when it has cooled to blood temperature (i.e. feels barely warm when you stick your finger in it) mix in the yeast and leave for 5 minutes.  Combine the flours, milk and yeast mixture, salt and sugar in the bowl of your mixer and fit with the dough hook. Add the egg and mix to a sticky dough. Now add the dried fruit, orange zest and spice and knead on a low-speed until silky and smooth.
  2. Cover the dough in the bowl with a tea cloth or cling film and leave to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
  3. Knock back the dough and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape into rounds and dust with flour. Place on a floured board and leave to prove, covered with a linen tea towel (or in a large plastic bag) for about 30 minutes until doubled in size. Transfer carefully to a floured baking tray.
  4. Preheat the oven to 200°C and make the paste for the crosses by beating the water and oil into the flour until smooth . Transfer the paste into a piping bag with a small nozzle.  Beat the egg and milk together.
  5. Make a cross with a sharp knife across the top of the buns.  Brush with the egg wash (the beaten egg and milk) and then pipe crosses onto the indentation. Bake for 15–20 minutes.
  6. Transfer to a wire rack.  Dissolve the sugar in the orange juice (or water) in a small saucepan and bring to the boil.  Brush the glaze over the buns.  Cool to room temperature before pulling apart and eating plain or halved with butter.

hot cross buns on a bread board

Are you a traditionalist like me or do you fall on these different twists and flavours with gusto? Have you even eaten a Hot Cross Bun? Are there any different seasonal treats you like to make or eat? Let me know in the comments below.

Disclosure: As mentioned above, some of the bakers were kind enough to supply me with samples for testing. I know Chef Aaliya of B&S and Chef Russell of LG well – however this did not influence my appraisal and these are my honest opinions.