Dates are nature’s candy, but they are more than that. The fruit is filled with essential minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients, as well as lots of fiber. So we’re telling ourselves that these holiday cookies are healthy.
Growing up in New York City, I remember date-nut bread, date pudding, date-nut cake, and cookies with a filling that might have been the date version of Fig Newtons. The dried dates used to make these sweets were an everyday ingredient, as common then as dried cranberries are now. Of course they’re still available, but they and the wonderful recipes they were used in seem to have fallen out of fashion. A shame, because, as I was reminded when I made these cookies, they’re great!
These cookies never went out of style for my friend Oklahoma chef John Bennett, who gave me this recipe. He makes batches to serve with tea or ice cream; for lunch, dinner, snack time, or anytime — and for no reason other than that they’re good. — Dorie Greenspan
Makes about 18 cookies
For the filling
¾ c (113 g) chopped pitted dates
½ c (60 g) finely chopped walnuts or pecans
½ c (120 ml) water
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice or 2 tsp orange juice
1. Put all of the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring, then reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers gently. Stay at the stove, stirring regularly, until the liquid has been absorbed and the dates and nuts are soft, thick, and spreadable, just a few minutes. Scrape the filling into a bowl and let cool to room temperature.
For the dough
1¾ c (238 g) all-purpose flour
¼ tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 stick (8 Tbsp; 4 oz; 113 g) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
1 c (200 g) packed light brown sugar
¼ tsp fine sea salt
1 large egg, at room temperature
1. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and baking soda together.
2. Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar, and salt together on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Add the egg and beat for another minute or so, until it’s thoroughly blended in. Turn off the mixer and add the dry ingredients all at once, then pulse the mixer a few times. When the risk of flying flour has passed, mix at low speed until it’s thoroughly incorporated. You’ll have a soft dough that will clean the sides of the bowl.
3. Turn the dough out onto a piece of parchment paper and shape it into a rectangle. Cover with another piece of paper and roll the dough until it’s about 12 in by 10 in; slightly larger is better than smaller here. While you’re rolling, stop to peel the pieces of paper away from the dough frequently, so that they don’t get rolled into the dough and form creases. Slide the dough, still between the paper, onto a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or freeze for at least 1 hour.
To fill and roll the dough
1. Remove the dough from the refrigerator or freezer and leave it on the counter until it’s supple enough to bend without cracking. (This doesn’t take long.)
2. Peel away the paper on both sides of the dough and return the dough to one of the pieces of paper. Position the dough so that a long side is parallel to you. Using an icing spatula (or the back of a spoon), spread the filling over the dough, leaving about 1 in of dough bare at the top and about ½ in on the other sides. Starting with the long edge closest to you, and using the paper to help you, roll the dough up into a log, trying to keep it as compact as possible. The ends will be ragged, but that’s fine — they’ll be trimmed before baking.
3. Wrap the log and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour.
Getting ready to bake
1. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat it to 350°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
2. Unwrap the log, place it on a cutting board, and trim away the ragged edges, cutting until you can see spirals of filling. Using a sharp thin knife, cut the log into ½-in-thick rounds. Don’t worry if there are gaps between the filling and the dough — they’ll fill in as the cookies bake. Place the cookies on the baking sheets, leaving about 1½ in between them. If you haven’t used the entire log, return the remainder to the refrigerator.
3. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, rotating the baking sheets top to bottom and front to back after 8 minutes. The cookies will spread and puff and brown lightly; they should still be soft if poked gently. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheets for 2 minutes, then gently transfer them to a rack to cool until they are just warm or at room temperature.
4. If you have more dough, slice and bake, using a cool baking sheet.
You can make the filling up to 3 days ahead and keep it tightly covered in the refrigerator. The rolled-out dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months. The filled log can be refrigerated overnight or frozen for up to 2 months. The baked cookies are good keepers — pack them into a covered container and they’ll keep for 4 days or more. They are not good candidates for freezing.
A word on stickiness: Dates are sticky by nature and therefore not so easy to pit and chop. You’ll find this recipe quick to make if you buy dates that are already pitted and even quicker if you buy them pitted and chopped. They’re easy to find in the supermarket.