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Stuffed Dates

By Margherita de Ferrara
The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is a palm in the genus Phoenix, cultivated for its edible sweet fruit.  The fruit is known as a date.  The species name dactylifera "date-bearing" comes from Ancient Greek dáktulos "date" (also "finger") and the stem of the Latin verb ferō, "I bear".
Dates are an important traditional crop in Turkey, Iraq, Arabia, and North Africa, west to Morocco.  They are mentioned more than fifty times in the Bible. In Islamic countries, dates and yogurt or milk are a traditional first meal when the sun sets during Ramadan.

Dates are believed to date back to prehistoric Mesopotamia, prehistoric Egypt and possibly as early as 4000 BCE[1]  Egyptians used the fruits for wine making as well as for eating.  There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in eastern Arabia in 6000 BCE. (Alvarez-Mon 2006).  Traders spread dates into Southwest Asia, North Africa, Spain and Italy.

Stuffed dates are documented in the Roman Empire as far back as late 4th or early 5th century in the De re coquinaria ("On the Subject of Cooking") attributed to  Marcus Gavius Apicius, written during the reign of Tiberius.  Apicius is the title of a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century CE and written in a language that is in many ways closer to Vulgar Latin than to Classical Latin.[2] 

Apicius 296 Stuffed Dates: (the number 296 being like a paragraph or passage number)

Dulcia domestica:  Palmulas uel dactilos excepto semine, nuce uel nucleis uel piper tritum infercies. Sales foris contingis, frigis in melle cocto et inferes.

Homemade sweets:  Remove the kernels from dates, stuff them with a nut or some pine-kernels. Sprinkle with salt on the outside, fry them in honey, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

The above recipe is meant to be a surprising item in a range of sweets to be served as mensae secundae and is not very difficult to prepare: whereas most Roman pastry and the like were made by specialized pastry cooks, this recipe can be made at home. [3]

First, remove the seed (pit or stone) by making a small incision; replace it with the quarter of a walnut, an almond, or some pine-kernels. I made some stuffed dates with and without the ground pepper to try the difference in taste and used the salt sparingly so as not to overpower the sweetness of the date and honey. During my first attempt, I salted the dates before frying them in honey; the salt all floated off the dates.  I started over and did not salt the dates until I removed them from the frying pan.  I did, however, salt the nuts before placing them inside the dates.

When frying I used a nonstick frying pan and a cast iron frying pan to see whether there was any difference in the end-product when using either modern or ancient tools.  Both worked equally well for the cooking; however, the nonstick was a quite a bit easier for clean-up, it usually is.  I found that frying the stuffed dates in honey was easier when I added some water.  I actually added rosewater on the second attempt and felt it added nicely to the flavor. Adding water or rosewater thinned the honey, allowing it to move more within the frying pan and around the dates.  However, it is important not to allow the honey (honey water) to evaporate too much, as that will leave a very thick and gooey substance in your pan after it cools.  One lesson I learned the hard way: cleaning up that goo is very difficult.  If you clean it up while it is still warm, it is much easier.  I would not recommend dumping it down your drain or into the garbage disposal. When frying a good number of dates it is best to change your honey water.  For example:  I fried about 60 dates at one time.  I found I should have changed the honey water about half way through.  In this case I used about half a cup of honey to about one quarter or less a cup of rose water.

Finally, this date recipe is best when served warm and with or without the pinch of pepper to taste.

While the recipe found in Apicius was the only one I could specifically document to centuries earlier than the 18th century, with dates having traveled into Greece and Italy as well as the Arabian Peninsula one can assume they would have used items readily available to serve and possible to stuff into dates.  In these areas, dry or soft dates would have been eaten out of hand.  Or, they may have been pitted and stuffed with fillings such as almonds, walnuts, candied orange and lemon peel, tahini (a paste of ground sesame seeds), marzipan, goat cheese, or cream cheese.

Type of Dates

As to the variety of dates available during the years this recipe was first written I was unable to find any documentation.  Within the recipe the words Palmulas uel dactilos are used which means ‘Some dates or date-like fruit’.  Palmulas is ‘Some dates’ uel means ‘or’ and dactilos is a fruit like a date or grape. As you can see no variety of date is indicated. 

In modern times, however there are many varieties. To name a few:
Of course what type of date you use will depend on what is available in your local store or market.  Most often what we find today in our grocery stores are Medjool dates. 

Medjool dates have been called the "king of dates" and the "crown jewel of dates." Like most dates, the fruit is dried prior to being eaten. What really makes these dried wonders so special is that they are exceptionally large, contain a large amount of "fruit meat," and are extremely sweet. Each center of the date has an elongated pit, which is easy to remove.

Despite their sweetness, medjool dates only contain about 66 calories each. They are a good source of fiber and contain high levels of potassium, magnesium, copper and manganese. They do have a significant amount of fruit sugar, but this can make them a perfect alternative to other forms of dessert.

In color, medjool dates can vary from a deep brown to a rich dark purple or crimson. Some variance in color may be due to treatment methods. Many companies treat dried dates with sulfur to keep color fresh, but people may also purchase medjool dates that are unsulphered.

Stuffed Dates with Goat Cheese[4]

12 medjool dates

3 oz goat cheese

1/8 cup pecan meal (or finely chopped pecans)


1.      Turn on your ovens broiler and move an oven rack to the top.

2.      Slice dates lengthwise to remove pit and create and opening for the date.

3.      Stuff date with goat cheese.

4.      Sprinkle with pecan meal.

5.      Place dates on a parchment lined baking sheet and broil for 3-4 minutes.


Dates Alexandrine

There is a Roman recipe (Apicius) for Dates Alexandrine--blanched almonds rolled in cinnamon, stuffed into dates, then coated with honey and allowed to dry. While I found this on a web site, I could not find it in the electronic copy of Apicius that I used for this project.

Also, there is a recipe for stuffed dates (Dates Alexandrine) in the "Description of Familiar Foods" as translated by Charles Perry: Rutab Mu'assal

  • 25   pitted Deglett-Noor dates
  • 25   blanched peeled whole almonds
  • 3/8  cup honey
  • 1/4  capful rose water, Cortas brand - or more to taste
  • saffron
  • sugar, finely minced
  • cinnamon
  • 1/4 long pepper
  1. Put 2 almonds into each date, one at a time. Some dates won't hold 2 almonds. Also, check for pits - dates are mechanically pitted and the machine could miss something.  You don't want to break any of your diners’ teeth. Dates are dry, so do this over several days. No rush.  
  2. When all dates are filled, warm the honey in a saucepan on medium heat until it flows smoothly.
  3. When honey is warm, stir rosewater into it.
  4. Put dates into the pan of honey on the stove. There should be just barely enough to cover the dates on medium-low heat. DO NOT STIR.
  5. Just as the honey just becomes bubbly around the edges, remove from heat and let cool. DO NOT STIR. I assume the dates they used were somewhat hard. Most modern (store-purchased) dates are pretty soft; stirring them after they've cooked in the honey will break them up or even dissolve them.
  6. Once the dates are cool, roll them in a sugar/cinnamon/pepper(?) mixture.

Original Recipe:  Take fresh ripe dates freshly harvested for immersion and spread them out in the shade and air for two days.  Then, remove their pits from the bottom, using a packing needle or sharpened stick, and put excellent peeled sweet almonds in place of all of the pits.  For every ten pounds, take two pounds of honey and thin it with two ounces of rosewater.

Put it up on the fire.  When it boils, remove its scum. Then, color it with half a dirham of saffron and throw the dates into it. When it boils, stir them nicely, lightly, so that they absorb the honey. Then, take them down from the fire and spread them out in a tray of briarwood.  When they have cooled, sprinkle them with spiced, finely ground sugar.  If you want them to be heating, spice them with musk, spikenard and a bit of [hot] spices [afawih].  If you want them to be cooling, spice them with camphor and a few poppy seeds.  Put them up in glass vessels and only use them during the chilly season when fresh date season is over.[5]

What I prepared for you:

1)  The original recipe found in Apicius:

I used Medjool dates.  They were in rather good shape for cooking with having not shriveled at all during shipping.  They were indeed raw dates not candied or dried, if they had been, they would have fallen apart when cooked. 

Sea salt was used rather than normal table salt.  However I the presented dates the salt was not put on prior to cooking.  I wonder how they kept the salt on the dates while frying during the Renaissance?

For nuts, I used walnut halves and almonds.  The whole almonds came with skins, so I blanched them and then roasted them to dry them out a bit.  I also use some almond slivers as they already had the skins removed.

I used simple black ground pepper corns. Though in the Renisance period Grains of Paridice would have been used which would have been lighter than black pepper, so I went easy on the pepper

On the left below without cinnamon and sugar are stuffed with almonds on the right are stuffed with walnuts.

2)  Stuffed Dates with Goat Cheese:

This recipe I followed as is.  No changes.

I did attempt to make my own goat cheese but I just couldn’t get it to curdle for me.  I tried lemon juice, vinegar, and even rent.  No curdles in my goat raw goat milk.
Above on the left are goat cheese stuffed and on the right are Dates Alexandria.
3)  Dates Alexandrine:

The first difference is the date type.  I had Medjool dates, not Deglett-Noor dates

I really wanted to try this recipe because of the saffron; I actually do have this at home

I didn’t have to mince my sugar.  Table sugar is already pretty fine.

I blanched the almonds I had.  I also roasted them (not having time to wait for them to dry).  I also used almond slivers where needed.

The first time I tried this I used to much saffron, to counter this I added more sugar and cinnamon then it was too sweet.  Hopeful this time round I have it right.



The stuffed dates are presented on a wicker tray with an Arab nomad tea set.  I purchased this tea set in Kuwait while there on a business trip.  As dates originated in the in North Africa and the Middle East I decided to use the tea set for decoration.

Also displayed are the recipes hand-written in a handmade parchment book also purchased in Kuwait.

I have filled the tea pot with a mild lemon tea as a pallet cleanser to drink between tasting the various dates.  Though I doubt this is necessarily period, I thought it would help to give each date a clear tasting.

There are also some grapes which may help as a pallet cleanser between tasting the different dates.


[1] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (23 July 2011) Phoenix datylifera. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_dactylifera

[2] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (page was last modified on 18 July 2011). Apicius. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apicius

[3] Apicius. 296. Retrieved from: http://www.apiciana.nl/english/api296e.html?7,8

[4] The Food Lovers Primal Palate, Stuffed Dates (February 11, 2011). Retrieved from: http://www.primal-palate.com/2011/02/stuffed-dates.html

[5] SCA Stefan’s Florilegium, (April 25, 2009) Food – Fruits, dates-msg.  The Description of Familiar Foods (Kitab Wasf al-At'ima al-Mu'tada) trans. Charles Perry. Retrieved From: http://www.florilegium.org/?http%3A//www.florilegium.org/files/FOOD/Cheap-Apicius-art.html