In the kitchen of an airy Notting Hill apartment, with pink-budded magnolia trees visible through the windows, the Kuwait-born author Sarah Al-Hamad is pouring red tea and dishing out dates. We try medjools – the big, meaty, subtle-flavoured fruit – that are increasingly found on the shelves of British supermarkets and then the gooey, toffee-like khalas dates, which taste intensely of honey and are so sticky it’s almost impossible to peel them apart.
They’re known as the Rolls-Royce of dates, Al-Hamad tells me, and after trying a couple, it’s not hard to work out why. I’ll never go back to those packages of small, shrivelled dates stuck on plastic twigs again.
“I blame it on a sticky toffee pudding,” Al-Hamad says of her obsession with the sweet, squishy fruit and all the incredible ways it can be cooked. “It was so luscious and so familiar tasting, and that’s because its key ingredient is dates. I started thinking: ‘How did such an exotic fruit find its way into a quintessentially English dessert?’”
The question took Al-Hamad – who has previously published a book of Gulf-inspired recipes called Cardamom and Lime – on a three-year journey around the world, as she got more and more fascinated with the way dates have been grown, transported and eaten. The result is a new cookbook, Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere, which was unveiled at the Emirates Festival of Literature last month and will officially be launched in the UK next month. Al-Hamad is hoping to return to Dubai this year to promote the book and she’ll also be going to Bahrain and Kuwait.
The book is filled with Al-Hamad’s own photography as well as recipes for everything from ginger and date jam to date and sesame flatbreads. There are pictures of fresh, yellow dates, which are crunchy and tangier than the dried version, piled up at UAE’s own Liwa Date Festival, where prizes are given to the best crops and biggest bunches. One snapshot shows the trunk of Al-Hamad’s aunt’s car after a trip to the festival, full to bursting with crates of the fruit, for the family to eat during Ramadan and to be given out to friends.
In Spain, Al-Hamad has photographed cathedrals with columns that are in the shape of date palms and palm leafs ornamenting wrought-iron balconies during the Catholic holiday of Palm Sunday. She has tried date shakes in California, where dates have been grown for a hundred years, and visited date gardens selling crystals – a sugar substitute made by baking the fruit at high temperatures.
There are also pictures of Cartmel, the quaint English village in Cumbria that claims to be the home of the sticky toffee pudding: the moist, steamed sponge cake that is
drizzled with toffee sauce. Dates have been used in British cooking, say Al-Hamad, since the Middle Ages, when dried fruit such as figs, prunes and raisins was an important commodity and the high sugar content made dates the perfect imports. It became “blingy” she says, for aristocrats to put dates in pies filled with things like marrow and pigeon.
In the past few years, in Britain, dates are making a comeback. When Al-Hamad started researching for her book three years ago, there was only one variety of dates in her local supermarket; now there are three. And the celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi has popularised date syrup in his most recent cookbook, Jerusalem. He describes it as having a “deep, fruity sweetness” and recommends drizzling it on roast vegetables or mixing it into hummus-like purées.
Al-Hamad was born and raised in Kuwait, where she remembers her father eating dates and drinking buttermilk – a traditional combination that is supposed to contain all the nutrients a body needs – but she describes herself now as very much a Londoner. She moved to the city 16 years ago to study for a master’s degree and stayed after getting a job at a publishing house. Researching Middle Eastern food, she says, helps her stay connected to her heritage.
“It’s a way of bringing all the strands of my history together: past, present and future,” she says. “I think food is a lovely way of opening a window onto a culture.” She sends me back out into the spring morning with a bag of dates to take home; they’re gone before I even make it to the Tube.
• Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere by Sarah Al-Hamad (Interlink Publishing) is out now
Date and polenta cake with pomegranate syrup
(serves eight to 10)
200g dates, roughly chopped
100g butter, softened
150g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
250g tub ricotta
125ml skimmed milk
175g self-raising flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
100g pomegranate seeds, to sprinkle
For the pomegranate syrup
300ml pomegranate juice
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp golden caster sugar
50g dates, sliced lengthways
Preheat the oven to 160°C/140°C/gas 3.
Grease and line a 22cm (9 inch) springform cake tin.
Put the dates in a small bowl and pour over 200ml boiling water. Leave to soak for 20 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, beat the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition, then stir in the ricotta and milk.
Drain the dates from their liquid and fold them into the mixture.
Sift the polenta, flour and baking powder into the mixture, then fold in thoroughly until smooth.
Pour into the tin and bake for 50 to 60 minutes until risen and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. The centre should still feel springy.
Meanwhile, make the topping. Put the juice, molasses and sugar into a saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and boil rapidly until the mixture has reduced by two thirds, then stir in the sliced dates and set aside to cool.
As soon as the cake is ready, remove it from the oven and poke it with a skewer a few times. Pour most of the syrup and dates over the cake, reserving a little of the syrup for serving.
Sprinkle liberally with pomegranate seeds and serve warm or at room temperature, drizzled with the remaining syrup.
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