Almond Paste Stuffed Dates

 

stuffed dates 1

 

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.

 

stuffed dates 3

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.

 

stuffed dates 2

 

Enjoy!  And have a lovely solstice.

DIY Fruit and Nut Bars

 

We’re headed to our next art show today (Brookside in Kansas City, MO) and along with my usual motley assortment of library books (shhh) and projects in progress, I’m packing two versions of these bars!

We eat a lot of Clif bars, Odwalla bars, Larabars, regular old granola bars, etc. for breakfast when we’re in the truck.  By the end of the summer if I never saw another one it wouldn’t bother me, with the possible exception of the Larabar type.  There’s nothing in those besides dates, nuts and spices, and of course they are also the most expensive kind, I usually don’t buy them unless they’re on sale.

This winter on our trip to Oregon I was sitting with our friend Becca when she came up with a brilliant idea – why not make them?  She was eating a bar made at the lodge where we were, which was mostly chunks of dried fruit and nuts held together with honey.  This seemed like such a good idea, and of course so obvious once she said it, it lodged in my brain and fortunately stayed there until I tried it out.

The first version had more dates, and fewer almonds, with none reserved for coating the outside.  It was good, but sticky, and even a little too sweet, despite the fact that there’s not any added sugar.  Here’s version 2:

Date and Almond Bars

Add 8 oz dried, pitted dates to a saucepan in which they barely fit in a single layer.  Grate on top: zest of one orange.  Pour in enough water to make about 1/8″ in the bottom of the pan, just enough so that all the dates have some to soak up.  Bring the water to simmer, then turn off the heat, cover the pan, and leave it for about half an hour, until the dates have soaked up the water and become soft and plump.

Grind 1 cup raw or toasted almonds to a coarse flour with some chunks remaining.  Grind a further 1/4 cup to flour without chunks.

Put the soaked dates in the food processor, and chop/grind until you have a thick puree.  I added a splash of Amaretto to the processor, totally optional, but adds a nice extra flavor.

Scoop out the date puree into a bowl or back into the pan, add the coarsely ground almonds, and mix together into a thick paste.  On a cutting board or parchment paper, sprinkle out about half of the almond four.  Scoop the date/almond paste on top of the flour, sprinkle more almond flour on top of it, and roll out like you would cookie dough to your desired thickness, using the almond flour to keep the bars from sticking to the surface or the rolling pin.

Cut into bars, use the extra almond flour that falls off to coat the edges, let dry for a few hours, and you’re done!

 

 

Seeing as how I was making my own fruit and nut bars, I also bought some figs, and made:

Fig and Pistachio Bars

Using basically the same procedure as the date and almond ones.  I needed to cut the stems off the figs, and they weren’t quite as juicy or sweet as the dates.

Add 12 oz dried figs (I used black mission), a little orange zest, about 1/3 of the orange (lemon would also be nice here), 1 Tablespoon of honey, and just a little water as before to the saucepan.

After soaking, there was still a little liquid left, so I brought the pan to a simmer again and boiled it off just for a minute or two, stirring, until it was more like a thin syrup that stuck to the figs.

When I was writing this up yesterday I forgot that I had used slightly fewer pistachios than I did almonds in the date bars, about 3/4 cup in the fig bars, but still 1/4 cup ground to dust the outsides.  This seemed to make sense because the figs were a little drier, and also because I ran out of pistachios!  Of course you can vary the amounts to your own taste and see what you like.

From this point process the figs and grind the pistachios just like the above recipe.

 

 

Maybe my favorite thing about this idea is that if I get tired of one kind, I can just add another variation, some spice or a different nut for a new flavor!  I’d love to know your thoughts, what flavor combos would be good?  If you try your own, how did they come out?