In her book Feast: Food of the Islamic World, author Anissa Helou writes extensively about the date “. . . the most important fruit in Islam.” She call it “the first food people [Gulf Arabs] eat when they break the long day’s fast during the month of Ramadan . . .

“… the tradition being to eat only three, to emulate the Prophet Muhammad who broke his fast with three dates. The date’s high sugar content makes it an ideal breakfast after so many hours without any food or water, supplying the necessary rush of energy while being easy on the empty stomach. Some people eat it plain, others dip it in tahini, and others have it with yogurt or cheese, and particularly a homemade curd called yiggit.”

Helou explains that the date palm grows mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, but she mentions other production areas, “the coasts of Africa, in Spain—in the east, a reminder of the time of Muslim rule—in western Asia, and in California.”

This year, the month of Ramadan begins April 23, when many of us are shut in at home, passing the time exploring new cooking projects and finding direct food resources. The date harvest is now underway in Southern California, and you can order directly from woman-owned plantation there: Rancho Meladuco. This recipe calls for date paste, which is easy to make at home.

Read our review of Feast: Food of the Islamic World

Date-Filled Cookies (ärass bil- Tamr)
Reprinted with permission from Feast: Food of the Islamic World © 2018 by Anissa Helou. Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Photograph by Kristin Perers.

Ramadan is the most important month in the Islamic calendar, a time for fasting during the day and feasting after sunset and until sunrise. During that whole month, sweets occupy an important place in people’s lives. They are offered to guests who come to visit after sunset, or they are snacked on throughout the night before the fast starts again at sunrise. They are also taken to family and/or friends during the nightly visits—social life increases considerably during Ramadan—and these date- filled cookies are a typical Ramadan sweet, together with the nut versions called ma’mul filled with pistachios or walnuts and shaped differently for people to tell which is which. They are time consuming to make but well worth the effort. If you can’t find store-bought date paste, substitute with an equal amount of pitted dates and process these with the cinnamon and butter in your food processor until they turn into a smooth paste.

The cookies are shaped with the use of a special mold that traditionally was carved out of wood but is now more often than not made in plastic. I still have my mother’s molds, which— though I could easily replace them as there are still young men who carve them by hand in the souk of Damascus in Syria—I guard jealously as they have acquired a lovely patina over the years.

Makes about 40

FOR THE DOUGH
2 cups (350 g) semolina ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon (50 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
¼ teaspoon instant (fast-acting) yeast
¼ cup (50 g) baker’s sugar or superfine sugar
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (150 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons orange blossom water
3 tablespoons rose water

FOR THE DATE FILLING

12 ounces (350 g) dried date paste
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter, melted

To make the dough: Mix the semolina, all- purpose flour, yeast, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the softened butter and, with the tips of your fingers, work it in until fully incorporated. Add the orange blossom and rose water and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. Roll the dough into a ball and place seam side down on your lightly floured counter. Cover with a very damp cloth and let rest for 1½ hours in a cool place.

To make the date filling: Put the date paste in a bowl. Add the cinnamon and gradually add the melted butter, working it in by hand until you have a smooth, soft paste. Pinch off a small piece and shape it into a disk 1½ inches (3.5 cm) in diameter and about ¼ inch (6 mm) thick. Place on a plate and make the remaining disks until you have used up all the paste. You should end up with 40 date disks. Cover with plastic wrap.

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).

To make date- filled cookies: Pinch off a piece of dough and roll into a ball the size of a walnut. Flatten it on your palm until you have a 3-inch (7.5 cm) disk that is about ¼ inch (6 mm) thick. Lay a date disk in the middle of the dough and flap the dough over the date to cover it. Pinch the edges together—the date disk should be covered with an even layer of dough. Lightly press into the round flat mold that is used for the date- filled cookies, then turn the mold over and tap the top edge lightly against a table while holding your other hand underneath to catch the cookie as it falls out of the mold. Slide the cookie onto a nonstick baking sheet, or one lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Make the remaining cookies in the same way. You should end up with 40 date cookies.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until lightly golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve or pack in an airtight container where they will keep for 2 weeks.