Many years ago when I was still a teenager and on my first visit to Jerusalem, I will never forget walking through the walled Old City, where Muslims who had been fasting all day during Ramadaan, were festively breaking the fast in the early evening by cooking a range of sweet delights.
The air was fragrant with the aroma of cardamom, honeyed syrup and the enticing smell of paper thin pancakes being expertly fried over open-air gas stoves. Sometimes I long for the taste of the unique sweet treats they were making, so redolent of the Middle East, where nuts, dates, honey and cardamon are so central to the ingredients.
Ramadan is currently being observed by Muslims worldwide and the first day of fasting in South Africa started yesterday, on Tuesday June 7.
Ramadaan commemorates the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad and the yearly observance is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
The month of fasting from sunrise to sunset lasts between 29 to 30 days. It’s based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon and here, devout Muslims generally go to Three Anchor Bay where the new moon can best be sighted.
In the evening, according to deep-rooted tradition, dates are usually the first food to break the fast; as Muhammad was said to have broken his fast with three dates.
The iftar meal, as it is called, that is eaten after the day of abstinence, is often served buffet style in which friends, family and also those who are less privileged are included.
In the Middle East, the iftar meal consists of water, juices, dates, salads and appetisers, one or more main dishes, and various kinds of desserts.
There as well, the dessert is the most important part during iftar. Main dishes in Middle Eastern countries include stewed lamb, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables, or roast chicken served with a colourfully studded rice pilaf. A rich dessert, such as baklava or kunafeh (a buttery, syrup-sweetened noodle pastry filled with cheese), ends the repast.
I love dates and they are also very healthy and good for you, and decided in honour of Ramadaan to make the two sweet treats below.
Dates by the way are a product of the date palm and they have been cultivated since approximately 6 000 B.C.
Dates, which are classified as a fruit, are one of the sweetest fruits around and, while there’s nothing nicer than fresh dates, they are commonly found in stores once they have been sun dried or mechanically dried.
Fresh or dry, their health benefits abound. Being rich in fibre, potassium, and copper, they work as an anti-inflammatory and are said, among other things, to promote health and lower blood pressure.
Date cake or muffins
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
2 cups chopped dates
Preheat your oven to 180 deg C. Grease and flour a medium-sized bakingpan or a muffin tin. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and eggs, then stir in the flour mixture.
Gently mix in the vanilla, pecans and dates.
Pour your batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.
If you are making it into a cake, cut into bars while the cake is still warm or if you are making muffins, gently ease each muffin out of the muffin tin and serve with fresh whole dates and pecans, which you can scatter over.
1 packet of Marie biscuits or tennis biscuits crushed
¾ cup sugar
1 cup of pitted dates
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup of dessicated coconut
Melt the butter and sugar on a medium heat, stirring constantly so that the sugar doesn’t burn.
Move the heated mixture off the stove. Cool it enough to add the beaten egg, ensuring the egg does not cook by whisking briskly (otherwise you are going to get a scrambled egg mixture!)
Add the chopped up dates and boil for 10 minutes, stirring all the time, until the dates cook down into the sugary mixture. Add the vanilla. Cool again and then add the crushed biscuits.
Roll into golf-sized balls and coat with coconut. Makes 24.
* Ramadaan is determined by the lunar cycle and will run until about Tuesday July 5, but the timing shifts each year in relation to the Western calendar.