Staying Up to Date
By Jane Dummer
Surprisingly versatile, dates are a great way to reduce sugar in many recipes.
They’re not just for date squares anymore! Are dates the “new” fruit on the baking block?
Dates are gaining traction with the traditional classics as well as in the raw, unbaked goods category. For the rapidly expanding health conscious market, consumers are finding dates packed with fibre; minerals, including potassium and manganese; and antioxidants.
Also, awareness is building about dates as a dry fruit, not a “dried fruit” such as prunes. Grown in desert conditions, dates are naturally low in moisture at less than 30 per cent.
I’ve always purchased dates originating from the Middle East until I was sent both the Deglet Noor and Medjool varieties grown in the desert of the Coachella Valley of southern California. I met Charlene Rainie, the director of research at the Date Research Institute in Laguna Beach, Calif., at the Food and Nutrition Conference Expo last October in Atlanta.
After an interesting conversation about baking with dates, Rainie was thrilled to send me two large boxes of dates early this year. My friends and family are still cooking and baking with them! I preferred baking with the Medjool dates over the Deglet Noor as the Medjool were tenderer and less fibrous.
Rainie explains, “It depends on the variety of date and the Deglet Noor are smaller and harder than the Medjools.” Rainie has seen an increase in date consumption over the past four years as an individual fruit and as an ingredient in the baking industry. When I asked the reasons for the increase, she says, “One reason is the nutrition the date packs, including its glycemic index rating of 46 out of 100. Also, dates as an ingredient are a natural source of sugar, have lovely caramel colour and smoky-savoury flavour, which makes them a very appealing item.”
Increasingly, large food processors and manufacturers are discovering dates as a cost-effective, easily incorporated ingredient. Considerably less acidic than some other dried fruits, Rainie says, “California dates will not interfere with chemical leavening systems or greatly alter yeast-leavened dough characteristics.”
When it comes to baking, there are a variety of ways you can include dates, depending on the application. Dehydrated date pieces, also known as date sugar, are used to add flavour and sweeten very firm dough where fruit must remain intact. Date paste, finely ground, is used as a sweetener and for filling for baked goods and confections. Extruded date pieces are used in recipes that require a uniform size of dates. Diced date pieces are used in applications that require particles to be separate and free flowing. Macerated dates with no pits are used in breads and cakes when large pieces of the fruit are desired. These can also be made into a paste.
Liz Gallagher is a chef, entrepreneur and the owner of UnBaked Cake Co. in Toronto. Gallagher has had a passion for raw food and healthy eating for years. After graduating from George Brown College, she worked as a dessert chef at a raw vegan restaurant. This sparked her interest in reinventing the classics and innovating new cakes, too.
Gallagher founded UnBaked Cake Co. in 2013, after a decade of making dessert for family and friends. She uses organic Medjool dates dehydrated, chopped, and makes her own paste.
“The paste only takes five minutes. I simply soak the dates and then put them into blender with water. The desired consistency for the recipe dictates how much water I add. Both my chocolate peanut layer cake and carrot cake use dates as a main ingredient. These cakes are very popular and are top sellers in both the 6-inch and 9-inch size. I make a nut crust for all my tarts. In a food processor I blend pitted whole dates, nuts, agave syrup and water. It was a bit of a trial and error to get the right texture and consistency for the crusts; it all comes down to the moisture wicking capacity of the dates.”
The bulk of Gallagher’s business comes from custom orders and catering and she is wholesaling, noting that each location needs refrigeration to keep her creation fresh and ready to eat.
It seems this old favourite is finding new demand! Dates are a significant source of nutrition and have a naturally sweet flavour which allows for less added sugar in recipes. Their caramel colour and savoury taste invites culinary creativity both for bread and baked goods. Enjoy experimenting with this “new” surprisingly versatile fruit.
Jane Dummer, RD (www.janedummer.com), known as the Pod to Plate Food Consultant, collaborates and partners with the food and nutrition industry across North America.