Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, has just begun; this means that for a whole month Mike and I won’t be eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset (I will still be posting regularly though — I have quite the backlog to share with you). The point is to teach you patience, discipline, and empathy for others who aren’t as fortunate. I have to say, it really works…food and drink (especially cold water!) never taste as good the rest of the year as they do during Ramadan.
Each day at sunset the fast ends with prayer, followed by a meal called iftar. The fast is usually broken with dates and a sip of water (really, just a sip since you don’t want to be too full for the feast that awaits). Then comes the meal, usually starting with a cup of soup (tonight Mike and I will be having Red Lentil Soup, the soup that I shared with you during Ramadan three years ago), and leading into what is often a pretty elaborate spread, especially if guests are joining you for the meal. If guests are over, of course after the meal comes tea, coffee, and sweets.
All manner of sweet treats are enjoyed during Ramadan, but date-filled cookies called ma’amoul are traditional. I’m planning to make ma’amoul for the Eid (the three day festival at the end of Ramadan), but for now, I wanted something with dates and warm spices for a festive feel. This cake is like a spice bread, but tastes so much better. (I’m telling you, food tastes amazing during Ramadan.) I like mine spread with a little labneh (a tangy yogurt cheese), but Greek yogurt or even cream cheese is delicious too (or you could strain regular yogurt and use that).
(If you want to learn more about Ramadan, About.com has a very informative article called Benefits of Ramadan.)
Wishing Everyone Ramadan Kareem (Generous Ramadan)!
Yields 1 loaf (about 10 to 12 servings)
3/4 cup unpitted dates (about 5 oz or 8-10 dates)
1 cup water
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Arabic Cake Spice Mix*
1/2 teaspoon mahlab spice**
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
1/4 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup shelled walnuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 350F; line a 9- by 5- by 3-inch loaf pan with parchment paper (or butter and flour it, if you prefer).
Cut the dates in half, remove the pits, and coarsely chop. Add the dates and water to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat; cook until the dates form a paste, about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, Arabic Cake Spice Mix, mahlab spice, and cinnamon in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and molasses until fluffy, then whisk in the oil and vanilla. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet, being careful not to over-mix; fold in the walnuts.
Pour batter into the prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted inside comes out clean or with just a couple crumbs, about 50 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before slicing.
*Arabic Cake Spice Mix is a mix of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mahlab, ginger, fennel, and anise; it’s usually available in Middle Eastern grocery stores. I included my mother-in-law’s fabulous recipe for it in my book which is being released October 10th!
**Mahlab is a spice that’s commonly used as a flavoring in Middle Eastern cooking. It is the seed kernel that comes from the center of St Lucie Cherry pits. Mahlab has a lovely aroma and tastes like a cross between almonds and cherries. You can read more about it in my post on Cherry Sauce.