Sweet on Ramadan
Having spent the past few weeks delving into the dishes of Ramadan (which continues until Oct. 23), I earnestly wish I could speak Arabic. (Maybe it's time for some lessons.) Instead, I turn to Pierre, a dear friend who's studying the language. In the process, I've learned that written English translations vary, depending on the country. For example, Tamr, tamur and tamer are all the same word for date.
The date is the fruit of the date palm tree, an ancient desert plant native to the Middle East. It's oblong in shape and contains a slender, woody pit. The flesh is thick and sweet. The word "date" is thought to have come from the Latin word for "dactylus, " which literally means "finger." High in potassium, the date offers a decent amount of fiber and, with a 55 percent sugar content, is literally one of the sweetest fruits on earth.
Often during Ramadan, the daily fast is broken with a few dates and dates figure prominently in desserts, as well. I have been feasting on Medjool dates for breakfast of late and had been keen to try a recipe for a date cookie that, according to "The Arab Table," by May Bsisu, is a favorite at Iraqi Ramadan tables.
A cross between a mini Fig Newton and a rugelach, the date fingers below are a true adventure in culinary travel. The milk-based dough is scented with anise seeds and ground mahlab, a spice made from cherry pits, which has a definite cherry aroma and a disinctive sweet 'n' sour flavor. Never before had I tasted cardamom with dates, a flavor combination that had me swooning and wanting more.
While rolling out the dough into a long rope, I traveled in my mind's eye to a village, where I could see a group of women, both young and old, preparing sweets for the evening iftarmeal. I could hear lively conversation and laughter, in spite of war and destruction. I could feel their strength, their ability to carry on. After the rubble has been cleared and treaties have been brokered, the recipes, I imagine, are the mainstay, the cultural thread that remains.
Date Fingers (Assabeh Tamr)
From "The Arab Table" by May S. Bsisu
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Â½ teaspoons baking powder
Â½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Â½ teaspoon ground anise seeds
Â¼ teaspoon salt
Â½ teaspoon mahlab (aka Mahleb; I found some at Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Va.; Online, you can find it at Penzeys)
Â½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and clarified
1 cup whole milk
1 pound pitted Medjool dates
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
Â½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Vegetable oil or spray for baking sheet
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 saffron thread (Note: I did without the saffron)
Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon anise, salt and mahlab in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a plastic or dough blade. Pulse to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk together the clarified butter and milk. Gradually add milk mixture to flour mixture, and pulse until dough comes together. Transfer dough to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for two hours.
Meanwhile make the filling: Combine the dates, butter, cardamom and cinnamon in bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade, and pulse until mixture forms a smooth paste.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat baking sheet with oil or spray.
Divide dough into thirds, as well as filling. On a lightly floured surface, use hand to roll one piece of the dough into a Â¾-inch thick rope. Flatten with the tips of your fingers until it is two inches wide. On a clean surface, roll one piece of the date filling into a Â¼-inch-thick rope. Place date rope down the middle of the dough, and pinch dough together to conceal it. Roll filled dough under your hands to seal and smooth the rope.
Using the back of a fork, make a decorative pattern along the length of the dough. Cut the dough into 1-inch "fingers" and place them close together on prepared baking sheet.
Brush each cookie with the egg wash, and bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Cool on wire racks.
Cookies will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 1 month. Bring to room temperature before serving.
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