Date Nights — December 29, 2016

Dates at Bateel, photo by Gale Brandt

When I was little my great aunt Edna used to send us a tin of cookies every Christmas. They weren’t really kid cookies – no icing, no chocolate chips, no sprinkles, no real fun. I always thought of them as adult cookies. Not too sweet, made from a grainy semolina, covered with a fluff of confectioners sugar, and filled with dates. Not exactly Oreos.  

For most of the year the Christmas-colored tin languished on top of the refrigerator, forgotten and untouched by most of us. I am pretty sure the only one who occasionally snuck a crumbly, date filled cookie from that tin was me, and I was always surprised when the next year’s gift arrived, to find out I’d pretty much polished off the previous year’s. Eventually I became quite fond of the cookies and looked forward to their arrival. I am sorry to say that when Great Aunt Edna, who I had never actually met, died, she was mourned by me chiefly for the loss of pastry.

I didn’t know then that the cookies I had come to love were called ma’amoul, kind of a less-buttery-than-Scottish middle-eastern shortbread rolled around the rich sweetness of dates or nuts. Aunt Edna’s cookies as I recall were pretty much rounded balls, but some ma’amoul are beautiful creations, with floral or, geometric patterns pushed into the dough. 

Not being much of a pastry chef I have never even tried to make them, a fact that seems to me now a real pity. But traveling the Middle East I have found a short-cut to the deliciousness of ma’amoul, which is just to eat dates. In the parts of the Arab world I visited they are everywhere. A welcoming greeting when you arrive, a sweet bite with tea, an after dinner mouthful of sugary delight.

Dates and nuts and tea

In Dubai we passed a shop called Bateel that overflowed with high-end date products (including intricately molded ma’amoul.) But it was the dates themselves that got me. Stuffed with everything you can think of – candied orange peel, pecans, pistachios – or dipped in chocolate, they were a date-lover’s dream. 

More dates
And still more dates
And… dates with chocolate
I carefully selected an assortment and it has been traveling with us, providing a regular, much-loved bed time treat. 

Me, practically climbing into the date case at Bateel. Cookies in the back corner are ma’amoul.

Having fallen newly back in love with these sweet, sweet, sweetmeats, I think it’s time to dig out Grandma’s Lebanese cookbook and start working on ma’amoul. (And definitely to remember to think kindly of Great Aunt Edna at Christmas. 🎄)

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