Those of you who regularly read this blog would be aware of my long-standing obsession with Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s something to do with the fragrant mix of spices, delicate florals, bleeding saffron and the earthy crunch of nuts, occasionally punctuated by sweet bursts of pomegranate or quince. It’s breathtaking art, both on the plate and the palate. I doubt that my adoration will ever wane.
Recently, my love of Israeli food has translated to an obsession with Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks. Two months ago, I purchased both Plenty and Jerusalem; both have subsequently been pored over at least once per week. I’ve made a few of his vegetable recipes, from this green herb salad to an adapted version of braised artichokes with freekeh. However, prior to last weekend I was yet to attempt one of his fragrant desserts.
Cue last Saturday. Aaron and I had invited some friends over for dinner in a ‘Moroccan feasting tent’ (a.k.a an abstract tent of sheets, blankets and rough twine that had initially been assembled for the entertainment of our nephew and nieces who had stayed over the previous weekend). Here’s a small snapshot of the ‘roof’:
I lovingly planned the menu: slow cooked lamb in spices and preserved lemon, flatbread with za’atar, split pea dip, beetroot with labneh, marinated sweet peppers and roasted carrots with pistachios, pomegranate and mint.
After some consideration, I decided to attempt an adaptation of Ottolenghi’s sweet pastry cigars with almond and cinnamon filling for dessert.
For personal reasons, I drastically reduced the sugar in Ottolenghi’s recipe, omitting the saffron icing and exchanging most of the sugar in the filling for chopped Medjool dates. When cooked, the dates formed a beautiful soft caramel that intermingled beautifully with the chopped nuts and spices.
Before serving with vanilla bean ice cream, I drizzled over some saffron and orange blossom infused raw honey, scattering over sweet crushed pistachios and dried rose petals.
The finished dish was a beautiful marriage of textures, colours and flavours. Each bite provided the crunch of fried pastry, the soft complexity of the date and nut filling, sweet fragrant honey and floral rose petals.
We enjoyed the cigars alongside creamy vanilla bean ice cream, however for those of you who avoid dairy, these cigars are perfectly beautiful when eaten on their own. Their natural sweetness would be a perfect pick-me-up on a dreary afternoon.
Spiced Date and Almond Cigars with Saffron Honey
Adapted from this recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi
Makes 8 large or 16 small cigar pastries
- 40 g finely chopped walnuts
- 60 g finely chopped almonds
- 60g Medjool dates (about 4), stoned and chopped
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 20 g raw caster sugar
- 75 ml water
- 1 pinch fine sea salt
- 3 tsp grated lemon rind
- 1 medium egg, separated
- 16 filo pastry sheets (12 cm x 18 cm)
- 250 ml (1 cup) sunflower oil (approximately), for frying
- 2 tbsp raw honey (I used Dean’s Bees unprocessed honey from Urban Locavore)
- pinch of saffron threads
- 1/4 tsp orange blossom water
- 1 tbsp roasted, coarsely crushed pistachios
- unsprayed dried rose petals (optional), crushed
Place the walnuts, almonds, dates, cinnamon, sugar, water and salt into a medium pan.
Gently heat over a low flame, stirring regularly for about four minutes or until the sugar has dissolved and the dates have softened and broken down. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Whisk in the lemon rind and the egg yolk (place the white into a small bowl, you will require it to roll the pastries) to create a thick, sticky mixture like this:
Set the filling aside. Place 1 filo pastry sheet onto a clean, dry surface with the longest edge facing you. Spread about three tsp of the nut mixture (15-20g) (about 3 tsp) in a long, thin strip along the edge closest to you (leave a 1cm gap on the right and left sides).
Fold the two sides in, sticking the pastry down over the paste to hold in the filling. Roll the pastry forwards (away from you) to create a compact cigar.
Brush the last 1cm of the pastry with egg white, then fold to seal the end. Repeat with the remaining pastry and filling.
Pour enough oil into a medium, heavy based frying pan to reach 2cm up the side of the pan (note: I actually added much less oil that this and they cooked beautifully, so use your discretion). Heat to 190 degrees C (375 degrees f) or until a cube of bread sizzles and cooks, turning gently brown in about 20 seconds.
Gently add the cigars to the pan, in batches if necessary, cooking for 1-2 minutes on each side or until golden and crisp all over (reduce the heat if they start to blacken or burn).
Remove each cigar with a slotted spoon. Drain on some paper towels.
To make the infused honey: gently heat the honey in a small saucepan over low heat until warm and fragrant. Turn off the heat and add in the pinch of saffron, leave for 5-10 minutes to infuse. Splash in a little orange blossom water to taste. Mix well.
Slice each cigar on an angle into two or three pieces to serve. Drizzle with infused honey and scatter with pistachios and rose petals, if desired.