Sweet on Ramadan

Having spent the past few weeks delving into the dishes of Ramadan (which continues until Oct. 23), I earnestly wish I could speak Arabic. (Maybe it's time for some lessons.) Instead, I turn to Pierre, a dear friend who's studying the language. In the process, I've learned that written English translations vary, depending on the country. For example, Tamr, tamur and tamer are all the same word for date.

A mountain of date fingers. (Kim O'Donnel)

The date is the fruit of the date palm tree, an ancient desert plant native to the Middle East. It's oblong in shape and contains a slender, woody pit. The flesh is thick and sweet. The word "date" is thought to have come from the Latin word for "dactylus, " which literally means "finger." High in potassium, the date offers a decent amount of fiber and, with a 55 percent sugar content, is literally one of the sweetest fruits on earth.

Often during Ramadan, the daily fast is broken with a few dates and dates figure prominently in desserts, as well. I have been feasting on Medjool dates for breakfast of late and had been keen to try a recipe for a date cookie that, according to "The Arab Table," by May Bsisu, is a favorite at Iraqi Ramadan tables.

A cross between a mini Fig Newton and a rugelach, the date fingers below are a true adventure in culinary travel. The milk-based dough is scented with anise seeds and ground mahlab, a spice made from cherry pits, which has a definite cherry aroma and a disinctive sweet 'n' sour flavor. Never before had I tasted cardamom with dates, a flavor combination that had me swooning and wanting more.

While rolling out the dough into a long rope, I traveled in my mind's eye to a village, where I could see a group of women, both young and old, preparing sweets for the evening iftarmeal. I could hear lively conversation and laughter, in spite of war and destruction. I could feel their strength, their ability to carry on. After the rubble has been cleared and treaties have been brokered, the recipes, I imagine, are the mainstay, the cultural thread that remains.

Date Fingers (Assabeh Tamr)
From "The Arab Table" by May S. Bsisu

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground anise seeds
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon mahlab (aka Mahleb; I found some at Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Va.; Online, you can find it at Penzeys)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and clarified
1 cup whole milk

1 pound pitted Medjool dates
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Vegetable oil or spray for baking sheet
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 saffron thread (Note: I did without the saffron)

Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon anise, salt and mahlab in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a plastic or dough blade. Pulse to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk together the clarified butter and milk. Gradually add milk mixture to flour mixture, and pulse until dough comes together. Transfer dough to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for two hours.

Meanwhile make the filling: Combine the dates, butter, cardamom and cinnamon in bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade, and pulse until mixture forms a smooth paste.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat baking sheet with oil or spray.

Divide dough into thirds, as well as filling. On a lightly floured surface, use hand to roll one piece of the dough into a ¾-inch thick rope. Flatten with the tips of your fingers until it is two inches wide. On a clean surface, roll one piece of the date filling into a ¼-inch-thick rope. Place date rope down the middle of the dough, and pinch dough together to conceal it. Roll filled dough under your hands to seal and smooth the rope.

Using the back of a fork, make a decorative pattern along the length of the dough. Cut the dough into 1-inch "fingers" and place them close together on prepared baking sheet.

Brush each cookie with the egg wash, and bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Cookies will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 1 month. Bring to room temperature before serving.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 11, 2006; 11:04 AM ET Ramadan
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I was just reading your post on dates. Another word used is balah (the h is heavy), mainly used by Egyptians!

Just wanted to let you know.

I'm not Muslim, but when i lived in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, I would eat iftar with all my friends :)

Posted by: Amira | October 11, 2006 11:27 AM

Hello! I'm new to baking - can you tell me what you mean by clarified butter? Thanks.

Posted by: mirm | October 11, 2006 11:38 AM

Mirm: Clarified butter means to melt it and then skim off the milk solids that float to the top. The end result is clearer, hence the word "clarified." In Indian cooking, this is known as "ghee."

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 11, 2006 11:53 AM

One can purchased the dates already mashed and formed into a thick paste ready to use as a filling, at most middle eastern grocery stores. I'm sure Lebanese Butcher in Falls Church carries the product as well as Halalco on Annandale Road in Falls Church.

Posted by: Mona | October 11, 2006 12:07 PM

please send recipes, etc to me:

Posted by: badg303@yahoo.com | October 11, 2006 2:41 PM

These are excellent columns, Ms. O'Donnel. Please however spare a thought for us non-Arab Muslims (There are over 400 million of us in South Asia alone, and more in East Asia). In South Asia, unlike the Arab world, we don't break fast with soup, but rather with a range of fritters (onions, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, etc. dipped in gram flour, or as we call it beson, fried golden brown, and then eaten with tamarind or tomato chutney), fresh fruits, and juices. On the more substantial side, a very thick lamb-lentil stew called Haleem is usually associated with Ramadan in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Sides such as boiled chick pea with onions and tomatoes (known as chole), crisped rice, and shami kebab are ubiquitous as well. As for sweets, nothing reminds one of Ramadan in the sub-continent than a hot jelebi (fried dough soaked in honey and sugar syrup). Gosh, writing this is making me hungry, and it is more than three hours from iftar (breaking of fast)!

Posted by: Taimur Baig | October 11, 2006 3:24 PM

just to clarify about the terminology in arabic... "balah" is the raw/fresh date - how it comes off the tree, whereas "tamr" is the 'processed' version and the one you are likely to find in shops in the west. both are wonderful, but it's more common to break the fast on the "tamr" not the "balah" as it is much sweeter and restores sugar to the body more quickly after a long day of fasting.

balah (and tamr) exist all over the middle east and there are more than 100 varieties, some of which are super expensive (i.e. over $100 or more per kilo). some are also huge - like the length of a finger....

Posted by: dmtamimi | October 11, 2006 3:27 PM

Taimur: Thanks so much for your note. I have plans to highlight a Ramadan dish from the non-Arab world next week! E-mail me if you can: kim.odonnel@washingtonpost.com with any additional ideas, thoughts or resources for breaking-fast dishes from South and/or East Asia. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 11, 2006 3:41 PM

hey Kim. The recipe calls for the filling to be wrapped by the dough and slightly flattened (a la fig newton), yes? But the pictures (and your description) seem to indicate more of a swirled "rugelach" type of result. Were you just experimenting with different techniques when rolling out?

Posted by: AA | October 11, 2006 3:44 PM

AA: Great question. I did do a bit of experimentation, some flat, some rolled like rugelach, as the dough was pliable enough to try variations. Results were tasty both ways, fyi.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 11, 2006 3:48 PM

Living 13 years in Saudi Arabia, one of my favorite sweets was mahmool, a date-filled cookie flavored with cardomum. It has a moist outer dough made of semolina flour. The cookie is decorated by hand with a fork or made in decorative wooden molds. So good you'll never consider fig newtons again.

Posted by: Carl of Houston | October 11, 2006 3:50 PM

My favorite treat with dates is to get the large premium ones from middle eastern groceries, pit them, and then stuff them in several ways. I especially like stuffing them with cream cheese and pineapple bits, or walnuts or pistachios. Completing the plate with spiced pecans or walnuts is great!

Posted by: Angus | October 11, 2006 5:45 PM

My favorite Ramadan treats are kunafa and atayef. I guess they're more popular in Palestine and thereabouts. I agree on covering food from the rest of the Muslim world (where most of the population lives.) I've been sharing iftar with Pakistani friends and I have to say it's been educational (and delicious -haleem is off the hook.)

Posted by: r_in_ohio | October 27, 2006 2:38 PM

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