Happy Midwinter everyone! Light is sparkling off the snow here, and I’m quite excited that it’s coming back – after this we get just a bit more sun every day until the glories of summer – no wonder so many cultures have celebrations around this time.
Whether you need some homemade gifts ASAP because the world did not in fact end today, or you had all that figured out long ago and just want a new winter treat to share with friends and family, I’ve got you covered. These dates, soaked in brandy and orange juice, stuffed with almond paste and rolled in almonds, are fun to make and taste quite impressive! They should be gluten-free as well, check the label on your almond paste to make sure. We get Black Sphinx dates from Arizona Date Gardens – they’re wonderful. Note: if you can find them sold in a plastic clam shell box, those are the freshest, gooiest dates you can imagine – and too soft for this recipe, they’ll just fall apart! Use the regular, sold in a plastic bag or bulk bin kind here.
Almond Paste Stuffed Dates
adapted from two recipes in different editions of The Joy of Cooking
Pit, if not already done for you, 30 dates. I like to use a “one clean hand” method, keeping a pairing knife in my dominant hand, and using the other hand for all the messy stuff; grabbing a date, holding it while I slice through it to the pit, pulling out the pit and tossing it in the compost, squeezing the date closed again and putting it in the bowl. It sounds complicated but actually it’s pretty simple and efficient, especially if you have everything close by.
Place your pitted dates in the top of a double boiler. I don’t actually own one, I use a pyrex bowl on top of a small pot of water, and the lid from another pot to cover the bowl. Use whatever setup works, just make sure all the parts are heat safe and that nothing is in danger of falling over.
Pour over the dates: 1/4 cup brandy and 2 Tablespoons orange juice. Bring the water in the bottom pot to a simmer, and let the dates heat in the brandy and OJ for 15 – 20 minutes (depending on how moist your dates are to start with), stirring them occasionally to make sure they all get a chance to soak up some yummy liquid. They are done when the skins are curling off, you’ll see what I mean.
While the dates are cooking, pinch off pieces of almond paste and squish them to be about the size and shape of date pits. They can be a little bigger, but not too much, or the dates won’t close around them. Note: marzipan and almond paste are often sold side by side in the baking aisle of the grocery store. Almond paste has more almonds and less sugar than marzipan, so it’s a better choice here because the dates are quite sweet on their own.
Also prepare the coating: grind about 1/2 cup almonds (some small chunks can remain but there should also be finer pieces – I do mine in a small food processor). Add a pinch of sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and the zest of 1/2 orange. Stir the coating together and put it on a cutting board or a plate for rolling. Have a plate or piece of wax or parchment paper nearby to place the finished dates on.
Hmm, iPhone pic, one of my goals for 2013 is to figure out how to take good pictures in my kitchen . . .
When the dates are done and cool enough to handle, pick them up one by one and peel off the large sections of skin that easily come off. You don’t have to get all the skin off, but do get a fair amount so that the almonds will stick. Place a piece of almond paste in the middle of each date, squeeze the date closed around it, and roll the surface in the almond mixture, then place the finished date aside. You may have guessed that there are no clean hands for this part, but you do get to lick your fingers at the end. As an extra bonus, there may be a little date-and-orange-steeped brandy left in the top of the double boiler when you finish the dates. I highly recommend you drink this when no one is looking – it’s divine.
Let the dates dry for a few hours or overnight, then store them airtight. I’ve never had any left to see how long they last, I would guess at least a few weeks in the fridge, and I ship them without fear.
Enjoy! And have a lovely solstice.