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Jessica Jiji:
My Iraqi Nana's Date Cookies

Sweet Dates in Basra

SWEET DATES IN BASRA

Jessica JijiSweet Dates in Basra was inspired by my father’s rich experiences of growing up in Iraq in the 1940s. Unlike the war-torn country we see on the news, this was a place of family, friendship and warmth. By naming Iraq’s most emblematic fruit in the title, I hoped to suggest two other meanings for ‘dates’: the romantic encounters between two lovers and the promising time when they meet, after independence but before the Second World War.

Pervasive violence in Iraq has made it impossible for my father to fulfill his longstanding dream of returning there. But he has been able to pass on its cultures and traditions to me and my siblings through stories, pictures and recipes.

My Iraqi grandmother, Nana, cooked many of the foods now associated with Middle Eastern cuisine, from rice-stuffed grape leaves to flaky baklava desserts. And while I could not hope to match her skills in producing these delicacies, the recipe for date cookies below continues to be a family favorite.

My sons, raised on the very sugary American version of what we think of as cookies, nonetheless love to devour these date treats, which have only natural sweetness.

For millennia, people knew dates as a wonder fruit that can promote everything from fertility to longevity, and modern science has confirmed their many nutritional benefits. In my experience, these cookies prove that dates can also be addictive!

My Iraqi Nana’s Date Cookies
date cookies

For the dough

1(1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105°F. - 115°F.)
1/4 cup (½ stick) butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt

For the filling

½ pound pitted dates, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon water

For the coating

1 egg white, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons sesame seeds

1.  To make the dough:  Combine yeast and water in a small bowl and stir until yeast is dissolved.  Let stand in a warm place for 10-15 minutes.

2.  Melt the butter; while it is melting whisk the flours and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk the melted butter into the yeast and then add that mixture to the flours.  Stir until a dough forms, then knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until smooth.  Do not overmix.

3.  Cover the bowl with a damp cloth.  Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

4.  Place racks in middle and top position in oven.  Preheat the oven to 400°F. and line 2 cookie trays with parchment paper.

5.  To make the filling:  While the dough is rising, gently simmer the dates, butter and water in a saucepan, stirring frequently for 7-10 minutes to make a soft mixture. Remove from heat and let cool.

6.  To form the cookies: Roll dough into walnut-sized balls. Flatten each ball to make a circle about 2 inches in diameter. Place a ball of the date filling the size of a hazelnut at the center, gently gather the edges of the dough over the filling and press them together. Turn the dough over and press it gently to flatten until it is about 2 ½ inches in diameter, so flat so you almost see the dates through the dough. Dip it into the egg white and then sprinkle on both sides with sesame seeds. Repeat until you have used all of the dough and filling.

7.  Arrange the cookies on the baking sheet and prick them with a fork so they do not puff (you can make a circular design or spokes for visual effect). Bake for about 10 minutes on the middle shelf and then 5 more minutes on the top, until golden brown.

Yield:  About 18 cookies