Every year I wrack my brain for a dish that would do well on either a Passover, Easter, or Ramadan table. It’s trickier than one might imagine. Last year I talked to Madeleine Brand about my favorite spring vegetable dishes that feature seasonal produce like asparagus, peas, and leeks.
This year I took my inspiration from dates, the magnificent dried fruit that many observant Muslims use to break the fast each sundown during Ramadan. I have a recipe for a particularly popular cheese-stuffed date and one for a sweet version that’s dipped in chocolate.
The goat cheese-stuffed date has become a kind of signature appetizer for me. It’s so easy that even if I don’t manage to get them ready before guests come, they love pitching in to help. I discovered years ago that there was a synergy of taste with Cypress Grove Purple Haze fresh goat cheese and dates. Perhaps it’s the hint of lavender and fennel in the tangy goat cheese that makes the dates sing. I like to finish off the bite by garnishing the cheese with chopped pistachios.
To make them, get a few nice Medjools. One per person is enough. If you have money to spare, buy Cypress Grove Purple Haze goat cheese. If you want to make the filling yourself, then simply get a log of plain goat cheese, and add some fennel pollen or ground-up fennel seed and ground-up lavender to it. It can take a fair amount of fennel, but be careful with the lavender, or else your filling will taste like a well-scented lotion. Mix it up well with a spoon or in a mixer. Then I simply make an incision in the top of the date, and carefully remove the pit. Use an espresso spoon if you have one to fill the date with the cheese. You can garnish the top by dipping the cheese filled date into finely chopped roasted pistachios. Make a couple extra for yourself.
The sweet version relies on lightly-salted nut butter to fill the dates and a quick dip in melted chocolate. It’s a mouthful of sweet, savory, lightly-salted goodness. You can use any nut butter you like, but I especially like smooth salted peanut butter for the filling. The dates are so sweet on their own that the slight saltiness of the peanut butter is a welcome counterpoint.
As for the chocolate, despite my love for milk chocolate, I reach for bittersweet again to play against the sweetness of the dates. The only technical skill involved is tempering the chocolate. This doesn’t mean avoiding angering the chocolate. Temper refers to the correct crystalline structure of the chocolate that gives you a glossy chocolate shell that isn’t soft. It’s not difficult, just fiddly and you need to slow down and be one with the chocolate.
To make the nut butter-filled dates, first refrigerate the nut butter until it is cold, otherwise you’ll make a big mess filling the pitted dates. Next, pit the dates and stuff them with just enough peanut butter that you can still close the date over the filling. Set your stuffed dates aside and prepare the chocolate for dipping. Use a fork or toothpick to dip the dates, lifting them out to a wire rack set atop a baking sheet. If you don’t have a wire rack, you can set them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Garnish with a light sprinkle of edible lavender from the spice rack, chopped nuts or Maldon salt.