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Let’s Cook: Dates Designed to Dazzle

By Chuck Repnow - | Jul 17, 2021

Aunt Matina’s Date Bread

Thank you, readers, for the fine response to the date pinwheel cookies in the last column. Several of you suggested that you would be like to see more recipes about dates. Simply put, dates are designed to please the palate. Because they can be used in a variety of ways in baking, they are compelling, noteworthy and remarkable to the commanders of the electric mixer.

As a child I loved eating dates and often enjoyed them right out of the package. My friends and siblings thought this to be a bit unusual. When I suggested enjoying a date as a snack, they gave me a strange look. It was the same look they gave me upon they entering the living room and hearing the fabulous Harmonicats being played on the stereo. To this day, I still enjoy their rendition of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” These three virtuosos of the harmonica can be often overlooked – much like dates.

Paying attention to facial expressions and tone of voice is a life-long learning experience. I discovered early in life that often strange looks can be the result of people not having been exposed to the joy or interest of certain food, music and so forth. When observing their reaction, the next action is to invite them to try something new; often this can win them over.

One who never overlooked dates was my Great Aunt Matina. She was a good cook and one who enjoyed food–someone who took an interest in every stage of producing a meal from buying, preparing and ultimately serving it with style. She lived in Minneapolis and came to visit us each fall. Her enthusiasm came with an understanding of ingredients, a knowledge of cooking techniques and, of course, inspiring recipes. She ran a rooming house and to pride in cooking for her boarders.

When she discovered that I enjoyed dates and cooking, we made a connection that lasted her lifetime. For several years, she would make something during her stay with dates. It was a gesture that made it easy for me to quiz her on cooking. She encouraged me to discover the many qualities of dates by simply reading.

My many “dates with dates” at the library have revealed that dates are low-fat treat, low sodium and energy boosting-while providing potassium, iron, protein, niacin and fiber! This amazing oblong, amber sweet-fleshed fruit is amazing.

A French author described dates as being “to the people of Sahara what wheat is to the French and rice to the Chinese.” Dates are persistent in the hot desert of western Asia and northern Africa, the date tree is often regarded as the tree of life, thriving in conditions where virtually nothing else can grow. Date trees reach peak production after ten years of growth, with yields extending from 175 to 300 pounds of delicious fruit. Date Palms have been known to bear fruit for up to a century! Iraq is the main exporter of dried dates; Israel, Lebanon and the United States also export dates. Several varieties of dates have been adapted to the desert regions of Arizona and California. Dates travel well making for ease in shipping.

Storing dates in a cool, dry place will keep them fresh for some time. Dates can lose moisture, and sugar crystals will form under the skin. If you simply steam the dates for approximately ten minutes, the sugars will melt back into the dates.

Simple virtues such cooking with your aunt, listening to the Harmonicats and learning about the history and nutrition of dates is a homespun charm that has lasting and enjoyable benefits. Now as an adult, when making and enjoying eating this bread, I am reminded of the loving patience and guidance of my Great Aunt.

Aunt Matina’s Date Bread

This bread had rich flavor of dates in this dark yeast bread which is wonderful fresh or toasted. Orange marmalade pairs well with this bread.

3 cups milk, divided as listed below

1 cup dates, chopped

2 packages of active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

2 tablespoons Crisco

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

8 1/2 to 9 cups all purpose flour

Heat 2 cups of milk and chopped dates over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stirring often. Cool to lukewarm.

Add 2 packages of yeast to 1/4 cup warm water plus 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Mix in bowl. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes.

Combine Crisco, sugar, salt, and 1 cup lukewarm milk with 1/2 cup of flour and mix with mixer until blended. Add cooled date mixture and prepared yeast. Mix until blended. Add 8 to 9 cups of flour one at a time and stirring well after addition.

Knead dough on a well-flour surface until smooth and satiny and this will take 8 to 10 minutes. Place in greased bowl and cover. Let this rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk.

Divide dough into 3 equal parts. Shape into loaves. Place in greased 9x5x3 inch pans. Cover and let rise in a warm place until light. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 40-45 minutes. Until dark golden brown. Brush with butter if desired. Cool for 10 -15 minutes before removing from pans.

Mud Balls

This is an easy and fun recipe to make with children. I Love the name, and they are healthy snack for the adventurous soul with a hunger. These keep well in the refrigerator. They can be displayed on a fun tray-or maybe you want to allow yourself some luxury so go ahead and arrange them on your finest crystal plate. You deserve it!

1/4 cup peanut butter

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup wheat germ

1/2 cup oatmeal

1/4 cup chocolate chips

1/2 cup coconut

1/2 cup dates (chopped)

Combine peanut butter and honey. Heat until melted. Add remaining ingredients. Roll into balls and refrigerate several hours.

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