My baking cupboard is in need of a January sort out after my busy squirrel-like hoarding of dried fruit and nuts. I picked up a copy of an Italian food magazine, Sale & Pepe, at Catania airport last week. The feature on cakes in January was all about dried fruit. Someone in recipe development must have read my mind or bought in bulk by mistake like me. I am not a great fan of dried figs with their relentless pips although I adore fresh ones. I decided then that the date cake, using 300g of fruit, might make a bit of an inroad into my three trays.
Date loaf (my mother always made it loaf shaped for hassle-free slicing), was a regular on our teatime table at home. I think it was because it was less a cake and more a hunk of man-fodder; something that could stoke up my father while out gardening or be hacked at by my two ravenous brothers. Men like ‘real cake’. I hated dates as a child, so rarely do I remember eating a slice. I was more a Victoria sponge girl. The date loaf would be more daintily served on Sunday tea tables, offered buttered. Thanks to its amazing moistness, it would keep well in the tin all week, serving its purpose as a between meals (healthier) snack. A good all-rounder to have in the house.
The date cake in S&P is just as moist only more refined with its Earl Grey and vanilla. They leave a subtle trace flavour which I upped a bit adding some cinnamon and nutmeg – my two winter warmer helpers in any dessert or cake. I adapted the recipe as I found it a little to dry on mixing (adding more tea and a splash of milk) and by adding maple syrup, which also upped the flavour. While I’ve grown to like dates, and appreciate their moisture-holding properties, perhaps I am still trying to mask them a little as childhood memories of the lurking date (or date stone!) linger still?
This is a really useful cake to have around though. Feel free to experiment adding your favourite spices to complement the dates, or some alcohol to soak and simmer them in along with the Earl Grey.
All images © Liz Ayling 2013
Date Cake with Vanilla Bean & Earl Grey
adapted from Sale & Pepe, January issue 2013
300g dates, pitted and chopped (+ two for decoration)
100g soft brown cane sugar
350g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 vanilla bean, slit open, seeds removed (retain pod)
200g unsalted butter
350 ml of Earl Grey tea
cinammon or nutmeg, 1-2 tsps ground.
1 tbsp maple syrup
Butter a 22cm cake tin (I used a ring). Preheat oven to 180°C.
Make up a mug of Earl Grey tea and soak the pitted, chopped dates in it. Leave to stand for 5 minutes and then drain. Place half the sugar and the strained tea from the dates in a small saucepan, simmer til the sugar has dissolved, then boil until syrup-like and reduced by half. Add the dates and continue to simmer for around 5 mins. Set aside to cool a little.
Meanwhile, beat the remaining sugar with the eggs and flour, adding one egg and a little flour at a time. If you find the mixture too stiff, add a little milk to loosen but don’t make the mix to runny as more liquid is coming. Beat in the ground spices if using, along with the vanilla bean seeds and 1 tbsp of maple syrup. Keep the vanilla pod to flavour sugar or simmer with fruit for crumbles etc. Then fold in the dates and syrup mix til combined well.
Tip the cake mix into the tin and bake for around 40 minutes until golden on top. I covered with some foil for the last 15 mins to prevent it getting too brown. When cooked, remove and turn out on a cooling rack. Decorate with some sliced dates, and drizzle some more maple syrup over, along with a sprinkling of brown sugar.
Moist enough to eat as it is, but delicious warm with butter. It’s a large cake so freeze half if you like.