salted tahini date caramel slice

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It’s been a couple of years since I first discovered date caramel, initially as a filling for some sort of decadent raw truffle at a friend’s dinner party. Since that day, I’ve mostly thought about date caramel rather than making it, for the simple reason that… well, I’d probably eat the whole batch. Straight from the mixing bowl, with sticky fingers and a caramel-smudged grin.

It’s that delicious, particularly with the addition of smooth nut butter and crunchy sea salt flakes. Dangerously addictive.

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But despite the best of intentions, it’s been that kind of week. I’ve had frazzled nerves and an exhausted brain that hasn’t wanted to sleep. Trips to the gym didn’t work (it’s usually a massive stress reliever for me) and neither did the odd glass of wine. Finally, when I did achieve some semblance of normality, this happened.

Ah, heck. I think it’s time for cake.

nectarI don’t often desire cake. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’d be aware that my sweet tooth left many years ago with my milk teeth and teenage demeanour. Don’t get me wrong, I do have a soft spot for Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate (largely due to childhood associations and sentimentality) however, upon eating it’s tooth-achingly sweet. Despite the glass-and-a-half slogan, it’s also got little nutrition to speak of (you need to eat an entire 200g to get that calcium, darn it).

Give me a hunk of protein-rich cheese any day. Even better, some smoked roasted almonds.

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Anyway, I’m digressing (mmm, cheese): let’s talk cake.

On the occasions when I bake, I usually lean towards bitter cacao or a fruit-driven puddings made with rice malt or maple syrup. Yes, there’s an element of sugar, but additional nutrients result in a lower glycemic index and more benefits for my mind and body.

A good example of this is my previous recipe for sweet potato brownies with raw cacao and rice malt syrup. They’re completely delicious, refined sugar free and naturally nourishing with just the right amount of natural sweetness. However, it’s presently mid-summer. Even evenings are warm and sticky, so I’m gravitating towards refrigerator treats such as today’s recipe: salted tahini date caramel slice with glossy bitter cacao and a chewy oat and walnut base.

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As far as sweet treats go, this slice strikes a pretty good balance between deliciousness and nutrition. It’s full of dietary fibre, iron, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals from the dates alongside plant protein and good fats (monounsaturated, omega 3, good cholesterol) from the nuts, cacao and coconut oil.

It tastes deliciously rich without being overpoweringly sweet. Definitely a winner in my book.

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cacao

In terms of honest dialogue, this slice isn’t nutritionally perfect. I’m not going to shout ‘…it’s guilt free!‘ from the rooftop in my yoga gear. Both dates and coconut nectar contribute a reasonable dose of fructose* to this recipe which, in real terms, is just a form of sugar. And any sugar, in excess (whether that be in the form of fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose or maltose) is still bad for your body and mind.

However, let’s talk about small amounts. A couple of tahini-stuffed dates, a Honeycrisp apple, a square or two of dark chocolate or a coconut banana smoothie. They’re okay, right? I definitely think so, unless you have a medical condition specifying otherwise (e.g. diabetes, fructose malabsorption; that’s an entirely different story).

For what it’s worth, I’m of the opinion that some natural sugar in the form of whole foods (such as dried or fresh fruits, carbohydrates and dairy products) is both acceptable and beneficial in a balanced, predominantly unrefined diet. The body needs fuel, particularly if you’re combining this diet with regular physical activity.

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So, where to next? I’m not about to tell you that ten pieces of this salted caramel thing are beneficial with one session of sweaty cardio, but if you want a small sweet treat, go for it. Eat. Eat with a sticky smile on your face.

Be thankful. Moderation is the key.

*If you want to read more about fructose, metabolism and energy, take a look here and here (or even better, consult a qualified dietitian or nutritionist on the issue). 

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Salted Tahini Date Caramel Slice

Makes approximately 18 squares

This slice is ridiculously easy to make. It involves a fair bit of food processing but otherwise contains no complexity. Don’t fret if your raw chocolate cracks after setting (this happens 99% of the time. Just heat your knife, breathe and try again). Just embrace the imperfections and how good that gosh-darn-salted-date-caramel tastes. 

Base:

  • 1 cup organic, raw rolled oats
  • 1 cup raw walnuts (or almonds, whichever you prefer)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup pitted soft Medjool* dates
  • a few drops of hot water, as required

Tahini date caramel:

  • 1 cup pitted soft Medjool* dates, about 11 dates
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • 2 tbsp almond butter or tahini
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • fine sea salt, to taste (I added around 1/4 tsp)

Raw chocolate:

  • 6 tbsp raw cacao
  • 2 tsp carob powder
  • 4-6 tbsp coconut nectar or rice malt syrup (to taste, I add as little as possible, a slightly bitter chocolate layer works perfectly with the date caramel)
  • 1 cup melted coconut oil or cacao butter (my coconut oil was liquid at room temperature, being summer in Australia, but melt it on low heat in a saucepan first if necessary)

Blend the oats and nuts together in a food processor until coarsely ground. Add in the dates and a little pinch of salt, pulsing again until well mixed and cohesive. If your mix is looking a little dry, add in a few drops of hot water and process until the mixture comes together. Press into an 18x27cm greased and lined tin.

Soak dates in the hot water for 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the soaking water for later. Puree all the filling ingredients except the sea salt in a food processor, streaming in a little of the soaking water until you obtain a creamy consistency (add as little water as possible – too much and the filling won’t set properly. I added about 2 tbsp worth of soaking liquid). Add a little sea salt, pulse and taste, adjusting the level of ‘saltiness’ to your preference. Spread over the prepared base, then refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before preparing the raw chocolate topping.

Blend all of the raw chocolate ingredients together in a food processor, pulsing for at least 30 seconds to ensure the coconut oil is emulsified. Taste and adjust sweetness as necessary. Remove slice from refrigerator and immediately pour over the chocolate mixture, tilting the tray to ensure even distribution (try not to touch the chocolate layer or you’ll probably end up with splotches of separated coconut oil rather than a smooth, glossy layer). Return to the refrigerator for 10 minutes to chill.

After 10 minutes, score the chocolate into 18 pieces (this will make it much easier to cut without cracks later). When the chocolate layer is completely set, cut through with a heated knife. Keep refrigerated or frozen (this is also amazing straight from the freezer!) in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

*Medjool dates are larger and softer than traditional dried dates, with a more complex caramel-y flavour. However, they’re also a bit more expensive than the regular packaged supermarket dates (which are usually the Empress or Deglet Noor varieties, click here for more info). If you’re trying to save cash, I’d recommend splashing out on Medjool dates for the salted caramel layer whilst using traditional dates for the oat and nut base. Please note: I soaked and drained all of the dates that I used in the recipe above (separate to and including those specified in the salted caramel layer) as mine were a little dry. However, if you have extra soft and moist dates, feel free to skip the soaking. Just ensure you have a little hot water on hand to stream into the food processor if your mixture/s aren’t the correct consistency.

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spiced date and almond cigars with saffron honey

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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.

pistachios

pistachiosmpCue 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’:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

To serve:

  • 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.

fillingpotGently 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:

mixture

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).

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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.

rollingBrush 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).

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Remove each cigar with a slotted spoon. Drain on some paper towels.

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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.

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