I don’t remember my first date — maybe we went to the movies? But though I may have forgotten all the details of my first foray into romance, I have a very clear memory of trying my first barhi date at the San Francisco farmers market, a piece of dried fruit so extraordinary it kickstarted my passion like no teen outing ever could.
Love may not grow on trees, but dates do, on giant date palms in clusters that resemble grapes. In America, 90% of the crop is grown in California’s Coachella Valley, where it was first propagated at the start of the 20th century. Of the many varieties under cultivation, medjool is the most common. They’re the largest, with a soft, fudgy texture, and a caramelized sweetness that calls to mind maple syrup or dark brown sugar. But there are many other varieties, each with their own characteristics, like amber-colored deglet noors, chewier and drier than medjool, and small, round barhi dates, which have a butterscotch-like flavor.
One thing most varieties of dates have in common: They’re great for baking. Naturally high in sugar, dates add sweetness, yes, but also tremendous flavor, moisture, and texture. And even though they are capable of contributing so much to your baked goods, they’re often overlooked — but no longer!
To experience the jamminess that dates bring to a recipe, try our recipes for Date Pinwheels or these Date Squares. Both are made with date purée, created by cooking (or soaking) the fruit in water before blending it into a sticky paste that tastes almost like caramel. In the pinwheels, that paste forms a bulls-eye swirl that retains its chewy-sticky texture, contrasting beautifully with the buttery, crisp cookie. In the date squares, the purée is sandwiched between crunchy oatmeal cookie-like layers, making these the bar cookies of my dream.
If you want to highlight the fruit’s fudgy chewiness, Date-Nut Bread is a great place to start. The quick bread calls for 2 cups of chopped dates, which meld with brown sugar and coffee into a moist loaf studded with toasted walnuts. In this new recipe for Fudgy Chocolate Date Cake, Test Kitchen Director Sarah Jampel opted to use soft medjool dates. Because they are so soft, they nearly disappear into the batter, leaving only pockets of stickiness; together with the chopped melted chocolate, the dates give the cake an incredible richness.
To further showcase the nuanced, layered flavor of dates, Sarah pairs her cake with a salted date butterscotch sauce made with dates, butter, and brown sugar. That sauce would also be a wonderful alternative to the caramel sauce that accompanies moist Sticky Toffee Pudding, a natural extension of the dates that sweeten the cake.
When baking with dates, match form with function: If you want the fruit to melt into the batter or are looking for a variety that’s soft enough to easily purée, medjools or barhi dates are your best bet. If you’re hoping that the date will retain some of its structural integrity after it’s baked, as in this dense, seedy, fruit-studded Fruit and Nut Granola Loaf, choose a drier variety, such as deglet noor.
Beyond the fruit, dates can also be incorporated into baking in other ways. Date sugar, made from ground, dehydrated dates, is coarser than white sugar and darker in color. Though some bakers claim it can be used 1:1 for brown or granulated sugar, we find its texture prohibitive. Because it doesn’t melt fully, it can give some baked goods a gritty texture; if you want to experiment, we recommend trying it sprinkled on muffins or quick breads before baking (or as an addition to a bowl of oatmeal).
Date syrup, called Silan in Hebrew, is one of the oldest known sweeteners, consumed in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq), where the fruit grows in abundance. Made from dates and water, the sticky substance can be used as a substitute for honey or maple syrup, though it has its own distinct flavor. It’s also great drizzled on pancakes.
The hottest dates of all aren’t the ones at the pizza parlor or the roller rink; they’re in your kitchen, waiting to transform all your baked goods.
Looking for more hot dates? Check out the calendar of classes at our Baking Schools in Vermont and Washington.
Cover photo (Fudgy Chocolate Date Cake) by Rick Holbrook, styling by Kaitlyn Wayne.