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Make It a Date

March 26, 1997|MARION CUNNINGHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Cunningham's latest book is "Cooking With Children" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995)

Dates, those wonderful additions to cookies and cakes, were brought to the United States--California specifically--in the late 1800s.

As Helen Evans Brown wrote in her splendid "West Coast Cookbook" (Bonanza Books, 1952), "Around 1890, Uncle Sam got busy and sent experts to get shoots of the famous date palms of Babylonia and Arabia. Shoots from the Deglet Noor, that now grow so profusely in the Coachella Valley of California, provide 90% of our output."

Years ago, many a breakfast table featured a bowl of dates, sugared and covered with cream--a sensational way to start the day. Dates were always in the household pantry, more plentiful than they are today.

Rachel McCarroll, manager of the Date Orchard in Indio, says dates need heat and water. The date palm's preferred environment is the desert, with irrigation, so it can have "its head in the sun and its feet in the water." Date palms are planted in harems, 49 females to one male, and they need no special insect for pollination; they can be hand-pollinated by people quite easily.

The Deglet Noor is the most common and abundant date, and Medjool is the more expensive fancy date, soft and big.

McCarroll says that although it is commonly believed that dates are dried, they are not; they are, however, often a year old when we buy them in supermarkets.

To preserve dates, don't store them in the refrigerator. If you freeze them, they will retain their moisture much better. If you need to soften very dry dates, or any dry fruits that are too dry, put them in a plastic bag, mist lightly with water and, depending on the amount, microwave them on the defrost setting for 3 to 5 minutes; they will reconstitute well. Don't soak them in water.

I'm counting on these two recipes to whet your appetite for dates. The Brown Sugar Date Cookies are moist and chewy with a great taste. The Date Nut Bread is right out of one of the top tea rooms of the '20s.

BROWN SUGAR DATE COOKIES

1 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup rolled oats (either quick or long-cooking)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water

10 ounces dates, chopped (about 1 3/4 cups)

Beat sugar and butter until well blended and smooth. Stir in egg and beat briskly until completely blended.

Stir cream of tartar into flour. Add flour mixture, salt and oats to sugar mixture and stir. Add vanilla extract, baking soda and dates. Mix only until well blended.

Place walnut-sized chunks of dough 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet. Either flour hands or dampen with cold water and press each chunk into 1/4-inch-thick round.

Bake at 350 degrees until bottoms of cookies are golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes before removing from baking sheet.

36 cookies. Each cookie:

93 calories; 66 mg sodium; 13 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.21 gram fiber.

DATE NUT BREAD

1 cup pitted chopped dates

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup boiling water

2 eggs

3/4 sugar

1 1/2 cups flour

Put dates, walnuts, baking soda, salt and butter in bowl. Pour boiling water over and stir. Let mixture stand 15 minutes.

Using fork, beat eggs and sugar together in separate bowl. Add flour and stir (this will be too stiff to mix well). Add date mixture and mix briskly until the batter is well blended.

Spoon into greased 8-inch round cake pan 2 inches deep and bake at 350 degrees about 40 minutes. Do not over-bake. Cake is done when toothpick inserted in center has moist but well-formed crumbs. Let cool in pan 10 minutes, then remove to rack and let cool completely.

12 servings. Each serving:

229 calories; 143 mg sodium; 43 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.83 gram fiber.

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