Known in ancient Egypt, mentioned in the Bible and enjoyed back in the time of the sybaritic Roman empire, the jewels of a desert palm, dates come in all shapes and varying degrees of sweetness. Blessed with the availability of these fruits in season (and now is the season, through early winter), Californians who frequent farmers’ markets can choose among the large Medjools, the smaller round Barhis, almond-shaped rich-flavored Khadrawy and light-colored soft Halawy, to find just the right taste, texture, sweetness and succulence that we prefer. Eating them out of hand is the simplest way to enjoy them; whirling them into shakes, ice creams, puddings, cakes and even lending spots of sweetness to savory dishes, are other ways to enjoy them. Lending their caramel sweetness and juicy texture to a date-nut bread studded with roasted walnuts or pecans brings back memories of my pre-coffee drinking days when I enjoyed this snack after school at the now-defunct Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee shops in NY and NJ where moist slices of the bread were slathered with cream cheese, wrapped in paper and served unceremoniously at their counters.
If the fresh-from-California kinds are not on the shelves of your markets, the standard Deglet Noor variety, pitted or un, with its sweet mild translucent flesh will do. But there’s another world of alluring dates from small specialty growers in the low desert of southern California (around Palm Springs) that includes many varieties. Not to be missed are the unique unripe Barhis sold on their stem, pale colored, pleasantly tannic, and crunchy; perhaps, these are an acquired taste but nonetheless a fleeting pleasure of the late fall into early winter season.