This date cake drizzled with whiskey butterscotch sauce is perfect for the holidays. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)

This date cake drizzled with whiskey butterscotch sauce is perfect for the holidays. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)

Date cake tastes like holidays, will make you forget fruitcake jokes

Puree dates with hot water and espresso powder for a pleasantly bitter flavor in this simple cake.

  • Wednesday, December 20, 2017 1:30am
  • Life

By JeanMarie Brownson / Chicago Tribune

Despite the jokes, we enjoy fruitcake in our house. Likewise, the dark fruit flavors of mincemeat, plum puddings, stollen and lebkuchen. They prove a bold contrast to all the sugar cookies, peppermint bark and homemade fudge — which we also love.

Cakes made with dates are relatively new to our repertoire. We’ve had a few good ones this year — most recently at The Vanguard in Indianapolis. They served a warm wedge of a robust, super moist date cake with a generous ladle of warm toffee sauce. Tasted like the holidays to us!

At home, I pureed pitted dates with hot water and a bit of espresso powder for an even darker, pleasantly bitter flavor in this simple one-layer cake. A topping of diced dried dates (look for packages of diced dates with oat flour; the pieces stay separate), mixed with walnuts and cacao nibs, adds a great texture and an attractive appearance. The cake keeps well for several days. I like to serve it warm; slices can be heated very briefly in the microwave.

The whiskey-spiked toffee sauce gilds the lily. The sauce makes a nice gift packaged in small jars. Microwave the sauce until it’s warm, so it flows over the cake nicely.

I added a jar of mincemeat to my condiment collection when shopping at Waitrose in London. In the old English days, mincemeat contained chopped meat. Today, the store-bought versions are meatless — and delicious. Basically, cooked apples sweetened with raisins and molasses and flavored with sweet and savory spices, such as cinnamon, clove, caraway and cinnamon, form the base of bottled mincemeat. Often a touch of vinegar is added for tanginess. Borden’s Nonesuch Mincemeat tastes good; Amazon sells a couple of British imports that I like too.

To satisfy the varied tastes of our holiday guests, I add a cup of mincemeat to a homemade apple pie. In my experience, adding a touch of the dark condiment to a pie helps ease the guests into these flavors. I think the combination is a perfect match any time of the year.

Double date cake with whiskey butterscotch sauce

¾ cup diced dates with oat flour

½ cup chopped walnuts

2 tablespoons cacao nibs or small bits of dark chocolate, optional

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup whole wheat flour

1½ teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice blend

¾ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon salt

1 package (8 ounces) whole pitted dates, about 1 ¾ cups

2 tablespoons rye whiskey or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

1½ sticks (¾ cup) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

4 large eggs

Powdered sugar, optional

Whiskey butterscotch sauce (see recipe)

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. For the topping, mix diced dates, walnuts and cacao nibs in a small bowl. Set aside.

Mix flours, baking soda, spice blend, ginger and salt in a separate bowl. Put pitted dates, whiskey and espresso powder in a heat-proof bowl. Add 1 cup boiling water and let stand until dates are super soft, about 10 minutes. Pour date-whiskey mixture into a food processor; process to a smooth puree. Let stand to thicken, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, put butter into a large bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on high speed until light and fluffy. Beat in sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes total. Add half of the flour mixture and all of the date-whiskey puree. Beat to combine. Add the remaining flour mixture and beat just enough to combine. Do not over-mix.

Scrap the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top. Sprinkle the reserved diced-dates-and-walnuts mixture evenly over the batter. Bake until cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan and a wooden pick inserted in several places comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes.

Let the cake cool on a wire rack at least 1 hour. Remove the sides of the springform. Cut cake into wedges to serve. Sprinkle generously with powdered sugar, if desired. Drizzle with the whiskey butterscotch sauce.

Makes 10 to 12 servings. Nutrition per serving (for 12 servings): 375 calories, 17 grams fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 93 milligrams cholesterol, 54 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams sugar, 6 grams protein, 285 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber.

Whiskey butterscotch sauce

You can sub bourbon or brandy for the rye whiskey, if you prefer.

1½ cups packed dark brown sugar

⅓ cup dark agave syrup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon coarse salt

½ cup heavy (whipping) cream

¼ cup rye whiskey

Put sugar, syrup, butter, salt and ¼ cup water into a medium-size deep saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan and let simmer, 2 minutes. Uncover the pan. Add cream and continue to simmer on low, stirring often, until sauce is thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Stir in whiskey, and cook 1 minute. Remove from heat. Allow sauce to cool at room temperature. Transfer to jars or microwave-safe container. Sauce will keep for up to one month in the refrigerator.

Microwave on medium (50 percent power) to warm the sauce. Serve warm.

Makes 1½ cups. Nutrition per tablespoon: 92 calories, 3 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 17 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams sugar, no protein, 26 milligrams sodium, no fiber.

Apple cinnamon mincemeat pie

You can substitute a box of frozen pie crust, about 22 ounces, for the homemade dough. Thaw the dough as directed, and roll it back into shape if it cracks when unwrapping.

1 recipe double-crust pie dough (recipe follows)

3 pounds (6 to 8 medium-size) firm crisp apples, such as Empire, Mutsu or Honeycrisp

Grated zest from 1 small lemon

¾ cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup bottled mincemeat

2 tablespoons half-and-half

Coarse sugar for sprinkling

Cinnamon sweetened whipped cream, or rum raisin ice cream

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Have a deep 10-inch glass or ceramic pie plate and a baking sheet ready.

Roll out the larger disk of dough between two sheets of floured wax paper into a thin circle about 14 inches in diameter. Carefully fold the dough in half, then place it in the pie dish, Unfold it and fit it over the bottom and up the sides of the pie dish. Trim the overhang to leave about { inch all around the pie dish. Refrigerate.

Roll the other piece of dough between 2 sheets of floured wax paper into an 11-inch circle and place it (still between the wax paper) on the baking sheet and refrigerate it.

For the filling, peel the apples, and quarter them through the stem end. Remove the core. Cut each quarter into -inch-thick slices. Put the slices into a large bowl, and add the lemon zest. Stir in sugar, cornstarch, tapioca, cinnamon and salt. Mix well. Gently stir in the mincemeat. Let stand, about 10 minutes.

Spoon the apple mixture and accumulated juices into the dough-lined pie dish. Pat the apples down to compact them a bit.

Carefully place the top crust over the fruit. Use your fingers to press together the top and bottom crusts, trimming as needed. Use a fork to make a decorative edge. Brush the top of the pie and the edges with the half-and-half. Sprinkle everything generously with the coarse sugar. Use the fork to gently poke steam vents into the top of the pie in several spots.

Bake pie at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Now slide the baking sheet under the pie to catch any drips. Continue baking at 325 degrees until the top crust is richly browned, 30 to 40 minutes more. (Use foil strips to cover the edges of the pie if they brown too quickly.) Cool pie on wire rack until barely warm.

Serve warm with cinnamon sweetened whipped cream or ice cream.

Makes 8 servings. Nutrition per serving: 629 calories, 26 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 99 grams carbohydrates, 53 grams sugar, 5 grams protein, 130 milligrams sodium, 6 grams fiber.

Our favorite, forgiving pie crust

Makes enough for a double crust 10-inch pie.

2½ cups unbleached flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup unsalted butter, very cold

½ cup transfat-free vegetable shortening, frozen

Put flour, sugar and salt into a food processor. Pulse to mix well. Cut butter and shortening into small pieces and sprinkle them over the flour mixture. Use on/off pulses with the food processor to blend the fats into the flour. The mixture will look like coarse crumbs.

Put ice cubes into about ½ cup water and let the water chill. Remove the ice cubes and drizzle about 6 tablespoons of the ice water over the flour mixture. Briefly pulse the machine just until the mixture gathers into a dough.

Dump the mixture out onto a sheet of wax paper. Gather into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Flatten the balls into thick disks. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. (Dough will keep in the refrigerator for several days.)

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