What does one ask of a coffee shop? Free wi-fi, outdoor seating with shade, really good coffee drinks and pastries, friendly staff and animation. In Beirut, there is Café Younès, which fills these requirements. Walking home after some leisurely time spent there, I saw these fresh dates, (guess it must be the season), and was reminded of my grandmother’s candied dates.
This is as traditional as it gets; served with coffee or tea when people drop by for a visit. Use a specific variety of fresh dates that are not sweet.
It is a very retro confection; some milk pudding that I left unsweetened is a good accompaniment.
- 1 1/2 pounds of fresh yellow or red dates
- 2 1/2 cups of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
- a few green cardamom seeds, crushed with a knife or mallet (traditionally, cloves are used)
- Peeled pistachios or almonds (about 1/2 cup)(almonds or candied orange rinds are used traditionally)
- Peel the dates with a peeler; one option is to boil them first and then peel them when they have cooled.
- Place the dates in a saucepan and cover with water. Simmer gently until they are soft when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes or more. Cool a bit.
- Remove the dates from the saucepan and with the tip of a knife or a vegetable corer, dislodge the seed from the dates and any strings from the inside of the fruit. Insert an almond inside or some pistachios.
- Place the dates back in the pot and add 2 1/2 cups of sugar. Leave overnight or 12 hours or so.
- The next day, measure the syrup and add enough water to equal 4 cups.
- Add the cardamom or cloves and boil the syrup down, adding some lemon juice until it is syrupy.
- Place the dates back in the syrup and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Cool. Place in sterilized jars. Serve or store in the fridge.
MILK PUDDING or Muhallabiyeh
- 2 cups of milk
- 1/2 cup of cream (Puck is a good brand and sold at middle-eastern stores)
- 1/2 teaspoon of orange blossom water
- 1/3 cup of cornstarch
- Pour the milk minus 1/2 cup and the cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat it until it starts steaming.
- Add the cornstarch dissolved in about 1/2 cup of milk to the steaming milk. Stir constantly, about 4 minutes, until the mixture thickens. Add some orange blossom water or other flavoring at this point.
- Strain the thickened milk mixture. Pour into individual containers and cool at room temperature, then refrigerate.
- Serve with the candied dates and some powdered pistachios or almonds.
NOTE: Go easy on the cardamom seeds, as they tend to be powerfully fragrant!