Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dulcia Domestica -- Roman Empire "Dates Alexandrine"

I have returned to my The Roman Cookery of Apicius book.  This time I have a dessert made with dates and almonds and cinnamon.

ISBN 0-88179-008-7
"Dulcia Domestica" means "homemade sweets".  The author who translated and redacted the recipes, John Edwards, said in the footnotes,
The word Alexandrine when used as an adjective by Apicius implied "expensive" or "best quality."  Alexandria itself was the great port of arrival for spices from India and China.

Dulcia Domestica:  The Original Recipe (Translated)

Take palms or dates, with the stones removed, and stuff them with nuts or nut kernels and ground pepper.  Salt the dates on top and bottom and fry in cooked honey, and serve.

Mr. Edwards also comments
In the preparation of sweets, Apicius used the word "pepper" loosely.  In the first century A.D., cinnamon and nutmeg were thought by the Romans to have common points of origin with pepper.  They were, in those days, prohibitively expensive.
So in his redaction, Mr. Edwards has us using cinnamon.

Dates Alexandria (page 173)

20 whole dates
20 blanched almonds
1 t. cinnamon
liquid honey

And olive oil for the pan
Remove pits from dates.  Roll almonds in cinnamon and stuff one in each date.  Place dates on a greased pan.  Sprinkle salt over the dates, then coat each one with honey.  Glaze in a 450 degree F oven for 10 minutes, then serve.

My Notes

I bought pitted dates, which was really convenient.  To slice them open to allow the almonds, I inserted the knife into the side hole and cut outwards.  This kept the date from being crushed by the knife.

It was easy to blanch the almonds.  The benefit was that the almonds were still damp so the cinnamon stuck to them well.  You really want a light dusting of cinnamon all over the almond.  Some will rub off on your fingers while stuffing and some will rub off to the inside of the date.

I kept rolling the almonds in the extra cinnamon as I was taking some out.
Some dates were big enough that I put in two almonds to make it look filled.

I think they would be better pushed closed, if possible.
I used kosher salt and sprinkled just a little over the tops.  None on the bottoms.

A little more is acceptable.
The pan was greased with olive oil (I think this is more realistic than using butter).

Then I drizzled each date with a bit of honey.  I did not try to coat each one thoroughly.

Just a zigzag drizzle across each.
I cooked them in a toaster oven.  Because of the close quarters and high heat, I cooked them for 5 minutes instead of ten.

I pulled it out when the honey smoked a little.
After they came out of the oven, I let them cool to the touch.  But get them out of the puddle of honey before it gets too cool, or they will stick to the pan despite the olive oil.

The Verdict

Confession time:  I made these once before but didn't document it.  They were good!  This time around didn't disappoint, either.

The nice part about cooking them in the honey is that the honey gets less sticky, making it a pleasure to eat the dates instead of a mess.

I loved the crunchy texture and cinnamon, sweet date flavors.  At first I thought the honey glaze was going to be too much sweet, but it really was just a back up flavor.  It made the overall taste deeper.  But what really startled me was the addition of the salt.

I know salt and sweet together can be good.  In fact, a little salt can make the sweet taste sweeter.  But this was a stronger salt sensation and, once I expected it, was a lovely complement to the sweet.  It reminded me a little of kettle corn, a sweet and salty crunchy version of candied popcorn.

Dates Alexandrine were a solid success.

Now here is the good part:  The second day they tasted even better!  What I noticed is that the salt dissolved into the honey and spread out over more of the date.  It was a lighter salt experience but still good.

I shared the dates with my colleagues.  I had wanted more cinnamon flavor (as did my guest tasters at dinner) but several of my colleagues admitted to disliking cinnamon.  However they did like the dates as given to them and thought the amount of cinnamon was just right.

So it is your choice!  If you think your diners love cinnamon, consider putting on more on the almonds or sprinkling some into the dates.  If you are not sure, go with the recipe.

I liked the author's idea to bake the dates.  However if I were to do this as a public demonstration, I would fry them as the original recipe indicates.

Finally, I would like to try this with pepper only, or a mixture of cinnamon and pepper, some time.  I think the bitter from the pepper would be intriguing and the whole flavor surprising.

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