Dates are an inherently sweet fruit and can be served alone, without adornment, as dessert—something they’ve been doing at Chez Panisse for decades. But if you’re going to use the date as a dessert ingredient, you’d better make damn sure you aren’t doing anything to push that sweetness into a treacly, over-sweet territory. This recipe is a series of balancing acts—little bits of sweet and bitter added at key stages, plus a bit of crunch at the end from the sesame seeds.
In working through this recipe, I hit on three customizations to heartily recommend as follows:
- A standard version: Use grocery store Medjool dates, a Tony’s Chocoloney 70% dark bar, and good old-fashioned Vermont maple syrup. You can even skip the sesame seeds here if you want to play it safe, or go all in and completely cover each date with chocolate to amp up the one-bite indulgence of the snack.
- A fancy version: Use Rancho Meladuco dates, Dick Taylor Chocolate’s Northerner Blend chocolate bar (for its high acidity and lovely piquant bitterness), and Runamok’s Tahitian Lime maple syrup.
- A color-switched version: This is a total rethink of the recipe but built using the same components, like a fancy cocktail bar riff. Use pistachios instead of walnuts; swap out rose syrup for maple; zest a grapefruit instead of an orange, or chop up some candied apricot; dunk the date in white chocolate (I recommend Askinosie), then sprinkle with black sesame seeds.
- Start by pitting your dates. Using a sharp paring knife, cut a single line along the flat side of a single date. Then use your fingers to pull out the pit, setting it aside. Do this for all 8 of your dates, placing them atop parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Most grocery stores sell Medjool dates, grown in California or imported from the Middle East. Another cultivar is the Deglet Nour date, which is a little bit softer and plumper than a Medjool.
Measure out ¼ cup of walnuts, and chop them up. Place your chopped walnuts in a mixing bowl.
A note on chopping walnuts: I hate doing this with a knife. It feels cumbersome to me and there's forever walnuts skittering off the cutting board onto the floor. Instead I prefer placing the walnuts in a small paper bag (or plastic if you must), and bashing the bejesus out of them with a rolling pin.
- Add a tablespoon of maple syrup to your mixing bowl and mix it together with the walnuts. You should use good maple syrup here (and really at all times); I like the Grade A amber kind for this recipe because it's a little darker and plays well with the date flavor. Brands like Anderson's and Butternut Mountain Farm are delicious. See below for a variation with pistachio and rose syrup, as well as a recipe using a Tahitian-lime-infused syrup.
- Now zest your mandarin orange. Can't get a mandarin? Zest a quarter of a standard large orange instead. Zester on the fritz? Simply peel the orange, then chop it down into tiny pieces and add to the bowl. I actually prefer this method best-a little bit of that pithy texture and bitterness really suits the recipe.
- Mix and integrate the zest, syrup, and walnuts together into an ambrosial stuffing using a cake spoon or your bare hands. Go ahead and sneak a bite. By god, that's good!
- Stuff each date with the walnut, syrup, and zest mixture. You want these dates filled up just enough that they're difficult to close, but not so much that walnut mixture is spilling all over the place. Roughly one teaspoon per date is about right. Once you've stuffed each date, go ahead and pinch them together with your hands at the opening, so they hold the mixture a little tighter. You should be able to see a lovely pop of color from the orange zest in each date.
Melt 1 3/4 ounces (50 grams) of chocolate using two saucepans in a simple double-boiler setup. Fill one pan with around an inch of water and set it to boil; then prepare your chocolate in the second pan by first adding a teaspoon of hazelnut oil (or any neutral oil), then adding the chocolate. Stir the chocolate regularly until it's melty and has incorporated the oil-it should have a nice viscous sheen to it.
A note on chocolate bars: Melting down a good chocolate bar for cooking purposes is sacrilege; it's also a revelation. The next time you're making a pudding or something, don't use chocolate powder or chocolate chips-go to the chocolate section of a store and buy a bar. It can be any bar you want! Maybe you want to support ethical chocolate cultivation around the world? Buy one from Tony's Chocoloney, a U.K.-based company with wide U.S. distribution and a fair compensation mission. Maybe you want something with wild, expressive flavor notes, sort of like a single origin espresso but in chocolate form? Companies like Askinosie, Dick Taylor Chocolate, Potomac Chocolate, and many, many more are making mind-bending origin-specific chocolates with lots of flavor and acidity. I know we are supposed to approach chocolate these days with a beard-stroking purist reverence or whatever, but honestly, that same attitude almost ruined coffee, and life is too short. I once made a ghost pepper chocolate pudding using a really spicy infused chocolate bar, and it was great.
- Now it's time to dunk the dates. Take the chocolate pan off the boiler and carefully, gingerly, dip each date halfway into the chocolate. A little bit of the walnut mixture might fall out-that's fine. Ideally you will still be able to see some zest and walnut on one half of the date, while the other half is completely coated in rich, lustrous chocolate. After dipping, place immediately back on the parchment paper. Once all 8 dates are dipped, placed the cooking sheet in the fridge to chill. You yourself should now chill as well, perhaps making a cup of the aforementioned oolong tea. In around a half an hour the chocolate will have set, and it will be time to add the final ingredient.
- Take your chocolate dates out of the fridge. Don't they look beautiful!? They're about to look even more beautiful, though, so no snacking yet. Measure out a tablespoon of sesame seeds (I love the Queen's Bucket brand from Korea) and sprinkle the chocolate side of each date. This adds a little bit of a different crunch to offset the walnuts, plus a creamy sesame note that complements the chocolate. And that's it! Now you're done, and snacking can begin. These date snacks last well in the fridge for up to one week, and once you've got this simple process down, the fun of customization can begin.
Jordan Michelman is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and author based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, T Magazine, Portland Monthly, Eater, Noble Rot, and Sprudge, the international coffee and wine publication he co-founded in 2009. His debut book, The New Rules of Coffee was released in 2018 with Ten Speed Press. jordanmichelman.com