The weather is downright chilly (at least, by California standards) and the traffic is outrageous. A quick review of the week’s social obligations provokes an anxiety attack. And with each passing day my holiday gift list seems to grow rather than shrink. Welcome to December.
It’s not all gloom, however. No matter how difficult the logistics might be, gathering with friends always soothes my soul. And there is never a shortage of good food to lift my spirits. Or good spirits to lift my food.
This month more than ever, shopping at the farmers’ market is a win-win situation: I not only avoid the craziness of a mall, I feel good knowing that whatever money I spend goes directly to the people who grow the food we eat throughout the year. While I purchase all the produce and other specialty food items needed for the coming week, I inevitably find a few “tasteful” gifts to cross off my list. Along with the rainbow of bargain-priced fresh flowers and plants to brighten both my home and those of my hosts, there’s a wide variety of artisan jams and jellies; local honey; California extra virgin olive oil; and plenty of top-quality dried fruits and nuts just ripe for giving. Baskets filled with plump raisins, apricots, walnuts, and almonds are perfect for any foodie, but a big bag of California dates will place your gift over-the-top.
Most supermarkets sell small boxes of pitted diced dates that taste as though they were chopped in 1978. The perceived“convenience” of this product is far outweighed by the fact they are little more than dry nuggets of sweetness. Whole dates, purchased pit-in to ensure freshness, are a different matter altogether.Especially this month, when the newest crop is available at the farmers’ market. One taste, and you’ll eschew the box forever.
Date palms have thrived in the southern California desert for over a century. The most common varieties of dates you’ll find at the farmers’ market are the papery-skinned Deglet Noor, and the fat, meaty Medjool—often considered the Rolls Royce of dates.Check with your grower for information on round dates, and other less-popular but equally tasty varieties.
The best dates are inherently sticky, but that is not a problem. Simply spray the blades of kitchen shears (or a sharp knife) with no-stick cooking spray, and you’re ready to get the job with the least amount of residual goo.
Eating a few nutrient-rich dates out of hand is sure to cure any sweet-cravings…and has the added value of being a genuine super-food. I also like to serve them as appetizer—perhaps stuffed with California goat cheese and a toasted almond. After dinner, dates can be a satisfying accompaniment to walnut halves and chunks of good Parmesan cheese drizzled with honey. For a heart-healthy blast of natural sugar, try adding a few bite-size pieces of pitted dates to your morning oatmeal or other cereal; salads; smoothies and shakes; stuffings; stews; or rice pilaf.
There are plenty of great recipes out therefor date breads and cookies and bars, but Sticky Toffee Pudding remains in a class by itself. If you haven’t tried it, December is a good time to go for broke–when “diet” is a 4-letter word. This is the sort of dessert I enjoy only once or twice per year, so I can ignore its caloric shortcomings without guilt.
Lest you be confused by the name of the recipe, please know that in British food-speak the word pudding is simply code for “dessert.” In this case, it’s a moist date cake topped with a wicked-good toffee sauce. This is uber-rich, so serve small portions. But be prepared for guests to ask for second helpings. How sweet it is!
Sticky Toffee Pudding
8 ounces dates, pitted and chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/4 cups water
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Toffee Sauce (recipe follows)
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, for serving
- In a medium saucepan, combine the dates and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda. Let stand for about 30 minutes, so the dates break down and soften completely. (Don’t worry if the mixture discolors from the acid in the baking soda—this is normal.)
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously grease a 9-inch square baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper, and grease the parchment.
- In a large bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer for 3 to 5 minutes, or until light and very fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, mix in the flour and baking powder. Add the date mixture and mix just until well blended. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan.
- Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the cake is just beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with no more than a moist crumb. Remove the pan from the oven. Using a toothpick, poke holes all over the top of the cake and drizzle with about 3/4 cup of the warm Toffee Sauce. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before cutting into squares or rectangles. Serve the “pudding” warm or at room temperature. Top each serving with a scoop of ice cream and drizzle the remainingwarm Toffee Sauce over all. Serves 6 to 8.
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
3/4cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 2 tablespoons brandy
In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, cream, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes.
- Stir the vanilla into the warm toffee sauce. Serve at once, or refrigerate, covered, for up to 1 week. Reheat gently before serving.Makes about 2 cups.
The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.com. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well.