Monday, February 15, 2010

Dates and good will

One frigid morning in January, our heat broke, and the house fell eerily quiet–and cold–without its background hum. Stranded at home waiting for the furnace man, I enticed a couple of friends over. And I baked. Those brave friends donned heavy sweaters, and in return I cranked the oven and made them coffee and warm date-walnut scones.

Dates, because that’s what we had. My husband, Ben, equates a big bowl of them with Christmas hospitality, which I've never understood (they are for him what clementines are for me), so we had leftovers–because of course no one's going for the dates when there are plates of pretty cookies everywhere.

Something I would like to say about dates is that, for the longest time I had no idea what one looked like–I knew them only as those dusty pellets loitering at the bottom of trail mix. Momo changed that. After college I worked in Paris, as a serveuse in a wine bar, and Momo was one of the cooks there, a lanky, brooding Moroccan who mostly kept his head down amid a battery of couscous jokes from the French chef. The Tamil cooks eyed him suspiciously, and they all worked alongside one another in their crazy, disconnected way.

Afternoons were slow, and the bar backed up to the pocket kitchen, so Momo and I found ourselves chatting comfortably during that idle stretch each day. He told me about his home back in Morocco, his family, and the meals his sister cooked for them. What he didn't tell me–but I always wondered–was what it felt like living as a Muslim immigrant in Paris. It cannot have been easy, judging by the dynamics where we worked, and the general anti-Arab fervor that flared up around the city at intervals.

Ramadan came, and Momo fasted each day. He looked thinner than ever–downright ashen, sometimes, as he headed into a double on an empty stomach. At dusk, he took out a package of dates and ate. "Les dattes!" he would proclaim, raising his arms in rhapsody, conveying how heavenly they must have tasted on the heels of a fast. The dates also took the place of the meal his family was sharing, one he missed most nights because of his job. We chuckled at the irony of his working in a restaurant, surrounded by food, but forbidden to even taste it. 

I was curious about these dates I had never seen before, and my questions unlocked a flood of enthusiastic memories: the sprays of ripe dates in the souks, the statuesque date palms so sorely absent in this city of gray monuments. I could relate, as a disconnected Virginian who had bitterly missed the sight of dogwoods and azaleas blooming that spring. 

One day, he brought me a bag of them. They still clung to their branches, golden and plump: fresh dates. I've never found them that way since, only the soft kind that has darkened and grown sticky, cured to a candied state. Those fresh ones tasted fruity and crunchy, and although I wasn't fasting (far from it), they made a lovely afternoon snack.

Ben, it seems, had the right idea all along; maybe there is something to the humble, wrinkled date that inspires good will, and perhaps I unknowingly stumbled upon it later, that January day, trying to make amends for my frozen house. 

As for the scones, they turned out far better than I could have imagined they would, and this is the first scone recipe I've actually wanted to make again. The outsides are unbelievably crispy, the interiors creamy and sweet. I found the base formula in the Gourmet Today cookbook (originally for raisin-orange scones), and I tweaked it. Here’s what resulted: 

Date-Walnut Scones:


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup dried Medjool dates (about 10 dates), chopped into blueberry-sized bits
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped small
  • ¾ cup half-and-half 
  • 1 large egg, separated
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 375º. In a food processor, pulse together flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add butter and pulse until it is incorporated into coarse, pea-sized lumps (work quickly so butter doesn't melt).
  2. Transfer mixture to a big bowl and stir in dates and walnuts. Whisk together cream, yolk, maple syrup, and vanilla. Stir gently into flour mixture.Dough should be shaggy, but if you feel it is just not coming together, add a few drops of milk or cream until it does.
  3. Move mixture to a floured surface and gently knead until it forms a unified mass (do not overwork). Fold over like a book, then again, then pat into a circle about 7 ½ inches across. Transfer to a lined baking sheet.
  4. Lightly beat egg white with fork and brush some of it on top of the dough. Next, sprinkle remainder of sugar on top. Cut round into eight evenly sized wedges (like a pizza), but don’t separate.
  5. Bake scones about 30-35 minutes, or until they are golden brown on top and underneath. *Important*: carefully separate them to check interiors, and if they still look underdone, separate scones and bake for 5 more minutes or so. They should be tender and moist but not soggy inside.


  1. First, there is nothing in this world like fresh dates.

    Second, I love your stories.

    Third, I'm totally making this bread. (What can I substitute for maple syrup? None to be found here in Argentina.)

  2. Leigh: thanks for your nice comments! You really could just skip the maple syrup altogether and substitute 1 extra tablespoon sugar for sweetness, and add an extra 1 tablespoon milk for liquid. Or, you can swap brown sugar (or whatever the Argentine equivalent) for half or so of the sugar. Hope that does it~!

    I look forward to reading your next blog post, too, besos!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed the trip down memory lane. I want to meet Momo! Marcos introduced me to dates...he loves them. Though i don't like candied fruit, especially in pastries, this is one I learned to really appreciate and enjoy on that cold but delicious morning that you treated us to your heavenly date scones!

  4. As Ben's sister, I also have this memory of dates at Christmas. They often sat next to the chocolates, so I mostly ignored them till I took a trip to Morocco with Michael. I really tasted them for the first time then and now when I eat them they always have a special way of reminding me of that vacation. A taste of Morocco! Can't wait to try these out!