With Christmas looming around the corner, my thoughts have been turning to holiday baking and the return of seasonal favourites which make their annual (but much anticipated) appearance around this time of year. I always look forward to the first batch of fruit mince pies, which is a rather curious phenomenon for me considering that I am actually not a big fan of fruit mince. In fact, I loathe fruit cakes and traditional Christmas cakes; I can eat a slither of a slice out of politeness, so long as there is a nice cup of tea to help me wash it down.
One year, I attempted Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Fruit Cake from Feast in the mistaken belief that the chocolate part of the cake would somehow override the dried fruit content. However, the cake was so heavily concentrated with dried fruit (a whopping 725 g to be precise) that it was essentially a big mound of dried prunes, raisins and currants held together by a mere few tablespoons of cocoa. How I managed to still convince myself to make the cake after reading the recipe, I’m not sure. Needless to say, I found the cake to be inedible and, incredibly, so did my husband who, up until that point in our relationship, had never spat out anything I had made, nor gone against his frugal nature and request that I throw away good food. I guess the point he was making was that this particular fruit cake was not “good food”. I know it sounds harsh, especially since I know many who are great fans of this particular recipe of Nigella, but it happens to be the one dish where my husband has derived great pleasure in telling our friends that I am sometimes short of the domestic goddess title, and I don’t blame him either.
Although I have an aversion to fruit mince, I have nothing against dried fruit. In fact, I could quite happily sit down to a bag of dried apricots, dried pears, dried apples, dried mango … I guess it is the dense combination of raisins and currants which is not always so appealing to me.
This Date & Cinnamon Tart is the perfect alternative to a traditional fruit cake or large fruit mince pie. The filling is a simple paste of dried dates with some ground cinnamon and an aromatic hint of orange. The tart itself is made from shortbread, meaning that you can skip the numerous resting periods and blind-baking that pastry requires.
I was first introduced to this recipe by a wonderful online foodie friend, Sam, who was baking her way through Dan Lepard’s Baking with Passion (Baker & Spice). Her enthusiasm for this book was infectious, so much that the moment I saw her photos of Dan Lepard’s Date Shortbread Bars, I instantly knew that it would be a winning recipe. Besides, Sam has a knack for sourcing many brilliant recipes, and I am truly grateful for her eagerness to share these gems.
The original recipe requires you to crumble one-third of the pastry over the filling to form a crumble topping. This is a fabulously easy way to decorate the tart, not to mention that it crisps up wonderfully upon baking to form a nice crunchy texture against the soft filling.
For something a bit more special for Christmas, I found inspiration from a Donna Hay magazine (which happens quite often!) and rolled out one-third of the pastry to form a lid for the tart, and used a cookie-cutter to cut out some snowflakes in the lid. The result is something I would be embarrassed to present to Donna herself, but hopefully you get the idea
I also played with the shortbread recipe a little as on each occasion when I’ve made it according to Dan Lepard’s instructions, my shortbread was a bit too crumbly to work with. As the date filling uses orange zest, I make some use of the rest of the orange by using some of the juice to help bring the mixture together. This not only adds additional fragrance and sweetness to the shortbread, but it also helps to keep the shortbread light and crumbly.
Although this Date & Cinnamon Tart is worth serving at an afternoon tea at whatever time of the year, I think this Christmas version might be a new favourite for me.
For the filling:
250 g dried dates (without seeds)
zest of 1 orange
25 g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
200 ml water
For the shortbread:
225 g plain flour
4 tablespoons cornflour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
125 g sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
150 g unsalted butter, softened
1-2 tablespoons of fresh orange juice
For the glaze:
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
Make the filling first by placing the dried dates, orange zest, butter, ground cinnamon and water into a small saucepan over high heat. Once it has come to the boil, remove the saucepan from the heat and give everything a good mix. Set the saucepan aside for the mixture to cool completely and for the dates to absorb some of the liquid. Once it has cooled, place the whole mixture into a food processor and process it until it is smooth. You can make the filling the night or day before making the tart and simply cover the filling with some clingfilm and leave it at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Generously grease a 35 cm x 13 cm rectangular fluted tin with some butter.
To make the shortbread, mix together the flour, cornflour, baking powder, sugar, salt, vanilla extract and butter in a food processor or KitchenAid. The mixture should resemble damp sand. If the mixture is too dry and crumbly, slowly add some fresh orange juice until the mixture just comes together in a ball. You may not need all of the orange juice.
You can also make the shortbread by hand by simply rubbing the butter into the dry ingredients until it is crumbly in texture, and then proceed to add any orange juice if necessary.
Roll the pastry into a ball. Remove about 1/3 of the pastry and roll this into a rectangular shape, about 3 mm thick, which will be the lid of the tart. It is easiest to roll out of the pastry on a sheet of clingfilm or baking paper. Use a cookie cutter in the shape of a snowflake or star to cut out some shapes in the lid.
Roll the remaining pastry (again on some clingfilm or baking paper) and line the tin with the pastry. Trim off any excess pastry. The pastry is likely to be quite soft but if any pieces fall off, you can simply squish some pastry into the tin to fill any gaps or holes.
Fill the tart with the date filling and spread it evenly.
Next, carefully cover the tart with the pastry lid. Trim off any excess pastry and press together the pastry edges. Brush the lid with some egg yolk and generously sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Bake the tart for about 25 to 30 minutes until it is lightly golden and the pastry is cooked underneath.
As a variation, instead of making a lid to cover the tart, you can simply use the pastry reserved for the lid by crumbling it over the filling for a crumble topping.
Recipe adapted from Dan Lepard’s Baking with Passion (Baker & Spice).
Tarte aux dattes et cannelle
250 g de dattes sèches dénoyautées
1 zeste d’orange – réserver le jus
25 g de beurre sans sel
1 cuiller à café de cannelle en poudre
20 cl d’eau
225 g de farine
4 cuillerées à soupe de maïzena
1/2 cuiller à café de levure à pâtisserie
125 g de sucre
1 pincée de sel
1 cuiller à café d’extrait de vanille
150 g de beurre doux ramolli
1 à 2 cuillers à soupe de jus d’orange pressée
1 jaune d’œuf battu
du sucre en grains
Commencer par la garniture: dans une petite casserole mettre dattes, zeste d’orange, beurre, cannelle et eau. Chauffer à feu vif. A ébullition, retirer du feu et bien mélanger. Laisser refroidir pour que les dattes absorbent une partie du liquide. Mixer pour obtenir une pâte lisse. (Cette opération peut être faite la veille, dans ce cas couvrir la garniture de film alimentaire et maintenir à température ambiante.)
Préchauffer le four à 180°C.
Beurrer généreusement un moule rectangulaire de 35 cm de long.
Pour le sablé, mélanger farine, maïzena, levure, sucre, sel, extrait de vanille et beurre dans un robot pour obtenir une consistance de sable humide. Si la pâte est trop sèche et s’émiette, ajouter peu à peu du jus d’orange jusqu’à obtenir une boule.
Remarque: la pâte sablée peut être realisée manuellement en incorporant des petits morceaux de beurre dans les ingrédients secs, et en maniant le tout façon “crumble”.
Rouler la pâte en boule. En prélever 1/3 que l’on étale sur une plaque en un rectangle de 3 mm d’épaisseur qui servira de “couvercle” à la tarte. A l’aide d’emporte-pièces, découper quelques flocons de neige ou étoiles dans ce rectangle (voir photo).
Etaler le reste de pâte sur une feuille de cuisson, en garnir le moule et découper l’excédent. Remplir la tarte uniformément avec la garniture. Poser le couvercle avec précaution, presser ensemble les bords, dorer au jaune d’œuf et saupoudrer généreusement de sucre en grains.
Faire cuire 25 à 30 minutes. Le dessus du gâteau doit être doré et le dessous bien cuit.
Variante: au lieu de servir de couvercle, la pâte réservée peut être émiettée en crumble avec la garniture.