The sweet life, with homemade date paste
Fabulous, almost-guilt-free sweetness.
Good cooks have used dates to sweeten food since ancient times, and with today’s search for sugar alternatives, date paste is coming back into style. Luckily for us, we have an advantage over the ancients, who had to pound their dates with a mortar and pestle. We have food processors.
It’s easy and convenient to make your own date paste at home, with the added advantage of knowing exactly what went into it. No added glucose, no preservatives. Just sweet dates, with all their lush flavors of caramel and vanilla. All it takes is soaking the dates until they’re soft, pitting them, then letting the food processor produce a thick, creamy and divinely sweet paste that you can use in many ways.
Choose dark, moist, plump dates. The Medjool variety is the best-known for rich flavor and texture, but try others if no Medjool are available. If you want to play with your date paste, it takes seconds to add a little vanilla extract or cinnamon, or throw in a couple of dried figs or prunes into the mix. Just soak any added dried fruit along with the dates, and remove the pits.
Another delicious way to vary the date paste is to soak the fruit in hot tea. I can imagine date paste flavored with Earl Grey, or if you’re feeling daring, Lapsang Souchong. Or try adding a teaspoon of grated lemon or orange zest to the dates in the food processor.
So how do you cook with date paste? For one, you don’t have to cook it. It’s great spread on toast instead of jam, stirred into oatmeal, or spooned into the blender along with your favorite smoothie ingredients. As a snack, a cracker topped with a sliver of sharp cheese and a little date paste is a delicious thing. Finally, ice cream sweetened with date paste. Almost guilt-free, and so good.
I like to stir a little into long-cooking stews like lamb tajine. People are also experimenting with date paste as a substitute for sugar in baking pies, cookies and muffins. My own next experiment is going to be home-baked bread with date paste beaten into the oil and eggs instead of sugar.
The biggest factor in making date paste is getting the dates soft enough to process. This takes soaking, and how long to soak depends on how dry or moist the dates are when you buy them. Very soft dates can be made ready in 15 minutes soaking; drier dates might take an hour or longer. When a date feels flexible, like a moist prune, and its skin is slipping off, it’s ready.
- 2 cups Medjool dates
- Enough very hot (but not boiling) water to cover the dates, or hot tea
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Other optional flavorings such as 1 teaspoon lemon zest or 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Soak the dates as long as needed to make them soft – 1 or 2 hours, or even overnight.
Drain the dates, but keep the soaking water.
Pit each date. Place 1/4 cup of the soaking water, then all the pitted dates in the food processor (a strong blender works too). Begin to process, at high speed. Add water by spoonfuls if needed to make a thick paste.
That’s it. Store in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator for up to a week. The paste may be frozen for up to three months.
Tip: Refrigerate any unused soaking water and substitute it for plain water when you want a sweetish flavor in oatmeal, rice, cookies and quick breads.