Introduction: Date and Walnut Dessert - Persian Sweetness for an Italian/American Christmas
Yesterday was Christmas and I was spending it in Italy with my 1/2 American 1/2 Italian family.
Our own family traditions have already become quite hybrid, so on the same Christmas table you can find very italian ANTIPASTO DI CROSTINI & TORTELLINI IN BRODO (meat tortellini in chicken broth) together with a totally american THANKSGIVING STYLE STUFFED TURKEY with CRANBERRY SAUCE, GRAVY & SWEET POTATOES.
Combining seemingly incompatible culinary traditions in one meal so far has worked out quite well, and it makes everybody happy, the Italians, the Americans and those in between ;)
A big dilemma appears when it's time to choose for the dessert: Italian tradition loads the table (and the belly) with an overflow of PANETTONE, PANDORO, PANFORTE & TORRONE (abundant in candied fruits and nuts of every kind), usually battled by less redundant yet delicious APPLE or PERSIMMON PIE, loved all year long by everyone yet less appreciated during a Christmas feast..
So THIS YEAR, after year-long debates on who should make what to end the Christmas dinner in a delightful and "culturally balanced way", I found the solution on a foodie blog (in italian), describing an intriguing persian dessert with DATES & WALNUTS.
It felt just right, especially seen the hordes of dried fruits and nuts that invade italian supermarkets, small shops and gift baskets during Christmas.
SO, LET'S GO PERSIAN!
(Probably a true Persian would twitch at the authenticity of the recipe, so I excuse myself in advance for the eventual betrayal..)
All sides of the family, Italian, Americans and those in between, LOVED IT.
And cultural conflicts were eased by inserting a NEW CULTURE :)
(makes 12 good servings)
125 g semolina
125 g cake flour
120 g butter (plus a bit to butter the pan)
70 g granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 pinch of salt
seeds from 1 vanilla stick
breadcrumbs for bottom
200 g seeded dates
125 g water
60 g honey
60 g walnuts
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
Cake pan (ca 20 cm diameter)
Mixing bowl (medium size)
Pot (medium size is good)
Step 1: Crust
Take a bowl, better if medium size since you will be mixing the ingredients with your hands and they must fit too.
Grab all the ingredients for the crust:
semolina, flour, baking soda, sugar, salt, vanilla stick
and place them in the bowl.
You will have to slice the vanilla stick in half and extract the seeds with a knife. You can use the remaining part to give aroma to you milk or tea, just to not waste all that nice flavor!
Once all the ingredients are placed in the bowl, make sure your hands are washed (but not soapy) and enjoy mixing! I believe it's easier to blend the butter with all the rest with the hands, and the texture becomes more homogeneous.
At this point, place the mix on a plate, separating it in small even lumps. Let it cool down in the fridge for about 30 minutes..
Step 2: Filling
While the crust is cooling in the fridge, let's make the filling!
First take the dates, seed them and then weigh them. 200 grams must be without seeds, so it's more dates than less..
After that, you are ready to chop them in small pieces with a knife. I opened the dates in half (see picture) and then sliced them in three horizontally.. The important is that they are somewhat even.
Second, time to chop the walnuts.. This goes faster if you use a mincing knife, but actually it requires a bit of patience to get the chunks small and somewhat even..
Once you're done chopping, squeeze half lemon so you have the lemon juice ready to use for the mix.
Now take a medium sized pot and mix the dates, honey,water, lemon juice and cinnamon on low heat.
Stir gently until the ingredients are mixed well and getting warm. It will take around 5 minutes..
At this point you can add the walnuts.
Finally, take a plate and place the filling flat on a plate in order to let it cool down..
And taste a bit now, it's already delicious;)
Step 3: Layering
Now that both crust and filling are ready, we can put on the oven at 180°C. The original recipe gave a higher temperature but I risked burning the cake, so this is better.
Now you can take the cake pan (I used a spring form one), place the oven paper on the bottom and sides and butter it .
Once you buttered it, you can now sprinkle the breadcrumbs on the bottom and a bit on the sides of the pan.
And now we LAYER!
Take the Crust mix for the bottom layer and place half of it it over the bread crumbs. Press into the pan with a spoon to make the layer uniform an leveled.
Now take the Filling mix and spread it gently over the bottom crust layer. Press it evenly with a spoon to create a nice uniform layer. Be sure not to brake the bottom!
Use the remaining half of the Crust mix to cover up the 2nd layer. Break it into small even crumbles so that it will all bake nicely :)
Finally, you can put your artwork in the oven, and leave it for about 30 minutes.
SMALL TIP I suggest you check if the crust is getting too brown after about 10-15 minutes. In case it is, place the dessert on a lower shelf of the oven and put the temperature down to about 120°C. Should work well, but every oven has its own personality, so..
Step 4: Ta-dahh!
After around 30 minutes, the final result should look more or less like this.
I risked burning the top since my oven gets very hot fast, but I managed to save it in time!
And the top crust was absolutely delicious, crunchy and a little grainy in texture due to the semolina.
It balanced the sticky softness of the date nut filling, a true PLEASURE for the palate!
In the end, since the Middle-Eastern inspiration got tickled by some good looking dried figs we had at home, I sliced 6-7 of them and used them to garnish the desert, and add an extra touch of fruit to it.
Dried cranberries could also do the trick for the topping, adding some color and a bit of a tangy taste to a very sweet dessert.
The cake disappeared quite fast, and put to peace Italians, Americans and those in between ;)
ENJOY and please post any cool variation you come up with, I'm very curious to try different versions!