03 December 2007
Marya's Date Tart
Despite the fact that I read and speak Arabic, despite the fact that I write my grocery lists half in Arabic and that there is usually a copy of al-Ahram strewn across my desk (though it’s probably a week old and I’ll confess to only understanding half of it), there is one item of which I am immensely proud. It is a small notebook page scribbled in Arabic with my friend Marya’s recipe for date tart. Nothing could make me feel more like an insider, like an adopted Arab, as many of my friends would joke, than this little recipe. I have a few others, scribbled recipes from friends for things like kabsa and molokhiyya and roast fish, and I treasure them just as dearly. Let’s face it, there’s just something cool about pulling out a recipe in another language, not to mention another alphabet.
I should also mention that Marya’s date tart is very good. Marya is from one of the most well known families in Syria and though she’s traveled all over the world and lives in a beautiful apartment on Damascus’ poshest street, she’s also as humble and generous as can be. She made this tart for a party one weekend, “my mom taught me to make it, it’s really easy.” She even offered me the recipe (oh joy, A Syrian who actually writes down a recipe!). Of course I accepted.
This is the kind of recipe that many Syrians of all social strata make at home today. The introduction of products like canned milk and blenders and the little recipe booklets that accompany them have had an impact on Arab home cooking. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, everyone I know still makes classic Arab dishes the old-fashioned way, chopping miles of parsley for tabboule, but they also make quick and delicious treats like this tart. One of my pet peeves with Middle Eastern cookbooks written in English is the tendency to feature medieval recipes. These recipes are fascinating from an academic standpoint, but they have little relation to how people actually cook today and little use in the modern kitchen. Furthermore, there is a tendency in the West to view Arab culture as less-developed or somehow stagnant, and publishing medieval recipes while ignoring the truly delicious modern Arab foods perpetuates this misconception.
Ok, my Edward Said rant is over, so let’s go back to that tart. I’ve adapted it slightly to be made in an American oven and with local ingredients (substituting creme fraiche for ‘ashta). I will say it’s not the prettiest tart I’ve ever made, but nothing a little dusting of powdered sugar won’t cover if you’re concerned about such things. My friend once called this "the candy bar tart," and it is sort of sweet and dense and crumbly like a good candy bar. It's one of those recipes that just slips itself into your regular repertoire because it's so tasty and easy to make and just a tad unusual. And now you don't even have to read Arabic to make it yourself, though it's not nearly as fun.
What’s up with all the sweet recipes lately? I had fully intended to write about a savory recipe (I do eat those too, you know) but I’ve just realized today is this blogs one year anniversary. What better way to celebrate than with a date-themed dessert, this blogs namesake. I started this project on a whim a year ago, and I had no idea it would grow into such a meaningful and enriching part of my life. Thank you to everyone who has been reading along, stopping by to comment, and even tried a recipe or two; your feedback is invaluable. Here’s to the first year!
Marya's Date Tart
1 sleeve (6 oz, 175 grams) tea biscuits
8 tablespoons (4 oz) butter, melted
1 tsp cinnamon
24 medium-sized dates (or 18 medjool dates)
7 oz (200 grams, about 1/2 a can) sweetened condensed milk
6 oz (170 grams, 3/4 cup) creme fraiche*
1. Preheat the oven 350 F. Pit the dates and place them in bowl. Add very hot water just to cover them and let sit 20-30 minutes to soften.
2. Meanwhile, pulse the biscuits in a food processor to form a coarse meal (alternately, place in a heavy duty bag and bash with a rolling pin). Add the cinnamon and drizzle in the butter, pulsing to mix. Press the crumb mixture into a 9" round tart pan. Place the pan in the oven and par-bake the crust for 7 minutes.
3. Drain the dates and place them in a blender or food processor. Add the condensed milk and the creme fraiche and blend until the mixture is smooth. Pour the mixture into the tart crust. Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, until the filling no longer jiggles. Remove from the oven, then place the tart under the broiler for 2-3 minutes to brown the top, watching carefully the edges don't burn. Let cool completely before serving, dusted with powdered sugar if desired.
*Make your own creme fraiche or substitute half sour cream and half heavy cream. Also, I imagine you could make a lower fat version using yogurt or low-fat sour cream but I haven't tried it yet.