Once, at a Rosh Hashanah dinner, I was presented with what might have been seen as a skimpy first course - a single date sitting in the middle of my plate. Of course, there would be plenty more food to come, but first we would bless the "first fruit" as a symbol of the bounty of the harvest.
Many Jews serve apples as their first fruit, but in the hotter climes of Israel, fruits such as the pomegranate, tamarind, fig, carob, quince and date are more commonly used. Dates, with a wonderfully rich, sweet flavor, are practically candy on their own. Perfect for baking, they often are used as a filling for cakes and pastries. One of my favorite recipes is a Syrian date-filled cookie in which the dates and nuts fill crescent-shaped crunchy pastries made from semolina and flour.
So this year, start a new tradition. Eat a date as your first fruit or serve your apple dipped in date honey.
HALEK (DATE "HONEY")
10 cups pitted dates, preferably Medjool
2 teaspoons ground anise
1. Put the dates, 4 quarts of water and anise in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for about an hour, uncovered, stirring occasionally. The dates will soften, open up, and reach the consistency of chunky applesauce.
2. Press the date mixture through a food mill. Return the syrup to a small saucepan and simmer slowly, uncovered, over a very low heat for about 3 hours, stirring frequently, until the date syrup thickens enough to coat a spoon. Cool.
3. Store in a jar in the refrigerator. The "honey" will keep for several months. Makes 4 cups.
RASS B'ADJWAH (SYRIAN DATE-FILLED CRESCENT COOKIES)
1 cup semolina (not semolina flour)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Dash of salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 pound unsalted butter or pareve margarine at room temperature
1/2 to 3/4 cup cold water
1 pound pitted dates
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1. Place the semolina, flour, salt, oil, and butter or margarine in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process, adding 1 to 2 cups of water, a little at a time, until the dough forms a ball. You can also make it by hand, mixing the oil and butter into the dry ingredients with your fingers. Add the water, a little at a time, until the dough comes together and is smooth and pliable.
2. Remove the dough from the food processor, cover, and let rest. At this point you can refrigerate the dough, bringing it to room temperature before working it.
3. Grind the dates in the food processor fitted with the steel blade. Then scoop them into a saucepan, add water barely to cover (about 2 cups) and cook the dates over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes, or until the water is mostly absorbed and a thick date paste is formed. Stir in the nuts and orange zest. Let cool.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
5. Separate the dough into 4 equal parts and divide each part into nine 2-inch balls. Flatten each ball with a rolling pin or your hand to create a 4-inch disc. Place 1 tablespoon of the date mixture in the middle of the circle of dough, pressing the dates down on the circle. Fold into a half moon shape to enclose, gently pinch the edges along the round side to seal in the date mixture, then shape into a crescent. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
6. Bake on the middle rack of the oven on an ungreased cookie sheet for 20-25 minutes, or until slightly golden. The cookies can be frozen after they cool. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar when ready to serve.