Many ancient sweeteners are long forgotten, overtaken by the simple, clean taste of granulated sugar. Take for instance, date syrup. Also called date molasses, melasse de datte, rub, dibs or silvan, date syrup has a long, storied history for many millennia in the Levant, Ancient Persia and throughout the Middle East.
I make sure my pantry is stocked with date syrup before the fall Jewish holidays. Its history alone isn’t enough to earn it a place in my top shelf, but its taste and new meaning give it high status.
How to use date syrup
Date syrup can be used, spoon-for-spoon, like molasses, although it’s not as sulphury or bitter. It is easy to bake with and even easier to drizzle on foods. Last of the watermelon and feta salads? Drizzle date syrup over them. Having avocado toast? Drizzle date syrup on top. Want a new sweetener in your yogurt bowl? Drizzle date syrup all over it. Want something new on your peanut butter sandwich? Drizzle date syrup across the spread.
It’s easy to find — look for date syrup online or at Middle Eastern grocery stores.
The unique taste of date syrup
Date syrup is a bit sweeter than agave nectar, yet less sweet and powerful than the strongest honey. The flavor has a dark, complex edge. It’s rich, handsome and oh-so-sexy on your taste buds. When paired with a lighter sweetener like granulated sugar, it’s an undertone, like blackstrap molasses, but without as much earthiness — and no traces of bitterness.
Why use date syrup at the New Year? What about honey?
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I hear the honey rumblings coming, so listen up. I love honey. I write about it, I eat it and I cook with it. One of my teenage daughters even interned at a local honey maker and apiary this summer. A wide variety of honeys will be on my table with apples this year, and every year. But at the Jewish New Year table, I often look for a new food as a tasty way to embrace the new. Year after year, date syrup is always, and I mean always, new to someone at the table.
Dates are a ritual Jewish New Year’s food
Dates are also one of the ritual foods in a Sephardic and Mizrachi Rosh Hashanah feast, a seder with culinary symbols, so it feels natural on the table. Ripe dates, wrinkled and nonperishable, are called tamar. (Yes, like my name’s root). The word is related to the Hebrew verb to consume or finish. The hope is that our enemies will be “finished.”
But given the domestic climate in this election year, I will not be offering this prayer at my table. I want to broaden the sense of hopefulness at Rosh Hashanah. We have plenty of other days to worry about harshness. So, instead of the Sephardic or Mizrachi prayer, when I serve and eat dates and date syrup, I will hope for a world without any reason to have enemies, where tolerance reigns.
Two new, symbolic reasons to add date syrup to the table
The food is deserving of its place. Its natural complexity is held together with a deep sweetness, without harshness on the tongue. That’s one heck of a real life wish on that spoon. Sweet and hopeful, complex and real, date syrup is more than delicious. It mirrors the best reality of an actual life, not a purified dream.
Date syrup is also a tangible evidence of human ingenuity. I think it’s awesome to share something so simple and yet so clever at the New Year’s table. Ingenuity is fascinating and part of its definition is newness. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere. The genius of the human mind is coming up with something unique out of those ideas and inspirations. It’s not simple. It’s not the white sugar of thinking. It’s the date syrup.
Here are a few recipes for using date syrup.
Date Syrup and Carrot Muffins
The magic of date syrup transforms these muffins from simple to complex with a single abracadabra! Tender and rich in both flavor and texture, they are studded with the earthy sweetness of carrots and a few chunks of dates that together up the “healthy” ante. Great with coffee or tea, these are tasty treats from am to pm, weekday or weekend, holiday or everyday.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 22 minutes
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Spray an 18-cup muffin tin with nonstick vegetable oil or canola oil spray (see Kitchen Tips).
In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and salt.
In separate bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, date syrup, olive oil, and vanilla bean paste and mix with a spoon until fully combined and bubbly.
Add the flour mixture and mix just to combine. Stir in the carrots and chopped dates.
Scoop the mixture into the muffin cups, filling each cup almost to the top (a little more than 1/4 cup of batter each). Bake for 12 to 13 minutes, and rotate the muffin tin back to front. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes longer, or until springy when touched lightly, and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean with perhaps a few moist crumbs. Cool in the pan for 3 to 5 minutes. Then carefully transfer them to a baking rack to finish cooling.
- If you don’t have an 18-cup muffin tin, use a 12-cup tin and a 6-cup tin, or two partially filled 12-cup tins.
- Swap the tins between the bottom and top oven racks about halfway through baking, rotating them from back to front as described in step 5 above.
Almond, Banana and Date Syrup Smoothie
2 very ripe small or 1 large banana, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces and frozen
2 1/2 cups almond milk
1/4 cup smooth almond butter
1 tablespoon date syrup (silan)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
4 large ice cubes
Combine the frozen bananas, almond milk, almond butter, date syrup, vanilla and ice cubes in a blender and process until completely smooth. Pour into glasses and serve immediately.
Main photo: Dates and date syrup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser