- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Did you ever wonder why dates are such a staple of the holidays? Even when I was a boy back in Austria, we’d get dried fruit platters, including generous helpings of the fudgelike little cylindrical fruits, just like people do all over North America. I loved dates then as I do now for the simple reason that no other fruit seems so much like candy.

There’s another reason, however, why deep-brown dates glisten on holiday tables: Date season is just wrapping up. The peak of their harvest runs from early autumn right up to Christmas. Even better, while worldwide date production still centers in North Africa and the Middle East, the deserts of Southern California have become a leading source in their own right since date palms were first planted there in the late-19th century. Which means that delicious dates are widely available, abundant and reasonably priced at the perfect moment for our celebrations.

I love to eat dates right out of the box or bag. There’s so much wonderful variety to choose from: the big, plump Medjool, probably the best known date, which is very sweet and has a meaty texture; the pale amber-colored, delicate-tasting Deglet Noor; Amer Hajj, which has a hint of spice and might remind you of caramel; the soft, subtle Empress; the big, round, mildly sweet, almost crisp Barhi; the golden, wrinkled, caramel-sweet Halawy; the reddish-brown Khadrawy, with soft, sweet flesh; the chewy, dry Thoory, sometimes called the “bread date”; and more. While you might not find all of these, and may come across still others, look in well-stocked supermarkets, health food stores, gourmet shops, and farmers’ markets, and you’re likely to find a wide range of choices.

As much as I love eating dates on their own, I also enjoy cooking with them. Like the dried fruit they often accompany, you can use them in a surprising range of savory dishes - chopped up in poultry stuffing, for example, or used as a garnish for braised sweet-and-sour meat dishes. But I like them most of all in desserts, where they add an incomparable combination of sweet, exotic flavor and rich texture. That’s a big part of the appeal of the Date Pudding Cake recipe that follows, a specialty from Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard.

Make it with the widely available Medjool, which we use, or Deglet Noor varieties, or whatever other good dates are available. Since dates can be sticky to work with, keep a bowl of water beside you on the counter to rinse off your fingertips as you pit and chop them.

As holiday baking recipes go, this one is fairly easy. The results, however, will taste like you’ve spent hours in the kitchen preparing a special grand finale for the celebration.

DATE PUDDING CAKE WITH STICKY TOFFEE SAUCE

Serves 8

DATE PUDDING CAKE:

9 ounces (280 g) chopped pitted dates

1 cup (250 ml) plus 2 tablespoons water

1/3 cup (80 ml) orange juice

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup (180 ml) tightly packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup (125 ml) granulated sugar

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

3 eggs, at room temperature

2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

STICKY TOFFEE SAUCE:

1 cup (250 ml) plus 2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 1/2 cups (375 ml) heavy cream

1/3 cup (80 ml) milk

2 tablespoons corn syrup

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

First, prepare the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 C). (Use a regular oven, not a convection oven.) Butter and flour a 9-inch (12.5-cm) round cake pan.

In a 2-quart (2-l) saucepan, combine the dates, water and orange juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the dates have absorbed all the liquid and pull away from the side, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or in a mixing bowl with a handheld electric mixer, cream together at medium speed the butter, sugars, and orange zest for 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl. One at a time, beat in the eggs until smoothly incorporated, scraping down after each addition. Continue to mix at medium speed for 5 minutes.

In another mixing bowl, sift together twice the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Add the date mixture and dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Mix at low speed just until the dates and dry ingredients are completely incorporated.

Fill the cake pan with the batter, which should come about two thirds of the way up its side. Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan a half turn and continue to bake until the cake gives slightly to the touch and a skewer inserted into its center comes out clean, 8 to 10 minutes more.

As soon as the cake goes into the oven, prepare the sauce: In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, cream, milk, corn syrup and butter. With a small, sharp knife, cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half. With the knife tip, scrape the vanilla seeds from each half into the pan. Over medium heat, cook the ingredients, stirring frequently, until they form a golden-brown sauce that registers 230 degrees (110 C) on a candy thermometer inserted in the pan, about 10 minutes.

When the cake is done, transfer the pan to a serving plate. With a skewer, prick the top of the cake deeply several times all over its surface so the sauce will be able to seep inside.

Pour half of the sauce over the cake and pour the rest into a sauceboat or serving bowl. Cut the cake into wedges, transferring them to individual serving plates. Serve warm, passing the remaining sauce alongside.

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores.

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