Sunday 28 December 2014

Proof of the pudding

Hot date: Rozanne fills her Christmas pudding with the middle-eastern fruit

If you haven't been soaking your fruit for months and maturing your homemade Christmas pudding in muslin cloth, do not despair! I am going to share with you my contemporary alternative to a traditional Christmas pudding, my Cape Brandy Pudding, served with a strawberry, orange and ginger compote.

I describe this pudding as a sticky, darkly delicious pudding laced with plenty of brandy and crunchy pecan nuts. It's like a really wicked sticky toffee pudding with a hint of an American pecan nut pie. As the pudding is so rich, I serve it with strawberries, orange and ginger that have been gently heated. This fresh, zingy side works extremely well to juxtapose the pudding. And thanks to polytunnels and glass houses, we can now enjoy Irish strawberries right up until Christmas. I'm not pretending that they're as good as a fragrant Wexford strawberry in July, but they are tastier than their imported counterparts.

The base of the pudding is dried dates. As I have been making so many of these puddings, I have been nibbling on dates as I've been cooking. I've had them recommended as a healthy sweet snack when you are trying to cut back on cakes and biscuits and all the naughty things. In writing my cookbook, I researched North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, where dates feature very prominently in sweet and savoury dishes. Hailing from the desert oases of northern Africa and south-west Asia, Middle Eastern peoples have included dates as a part of their diet for centuries. The date is thought to be one of the world's oldest cultivated fruits. The date palm has been called the "tree of life," probably due to its excellent health benefits as well as its high nutritional value.

A date is a sweet fruit from the date palm (scientific name: Phoenix dactylifera). Dates are best eaten when they are fresh, in season and water rich. You may also find raw dried dates and these will be more concentrated and should be treated like all other dried fruits. The best dates that I have come across are Medjool dates – big and juicy, not dried up and shrivelled.

As a staple of Middle Eastern countries, dates have been cultivated since ancient times, likely as early as 6000 BC.

The Spanish later introduced dates to the people of Mexico and California around 1765. The fruit has a large variety and more than 400 varieties are produced in the palm groves of Iran.

Ramadan is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims fast each day, from sunrise to sunset, in order to gain a higher level of spiritual enlightenment. The tradition of eating dates during Ramadan, in order to break the fast at the end of each day, spans the course of history back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed (570-632 CE).

Naturally, a depletion of energy can be experienced as a result of fasting, and consuming dates is thought to be a gentle way in which to ease the body back into the act of eating. Dates, it is said, prevent metabolic, digestive, and other physical issues that may be caused by the practice of fasting.

Dates are digested very easily and so are good for supplying quick energy. They are also known for their high levels of fibre and gentle laxative properties. They are excellent for overall digestive health too. Regular consumption of dates has been found to check the growth of pathological organisms and help in the growth of friendly bacteria in the intestines. Being a laxative food, dates have been found to be beneficial for those suffering from constipation. They can be immersed in water at night and taken after making them into a fine syrup the next morning to secure laxative effect.

Dates also have positive benefits for nervous system health, cardiovascular health and anaemia. One of the key benefits of the date is its ability to regulate a healthy nervous system, thanks to the rich potassium content. Research has recommended that higher intake of potassium (about 400 mg) can cut the risk of stroke by 40pc. Dates have the ability to lower LDL cholesterol.

They are also rich in iron and can be beneficial to those who suffer from anaemia. Israeli research has found that eating dates daily for four weeks can improve the quality of lipids (fats) in the blood without raising sugar levels.

In recent research, dates have found to be beneficial during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Some experiments have shown results that point to the strengthening of the uterine muscles due to consumption of dates. This is beneficial particularly in the last months of pregnancy. It is also said dates can help dilation at the time of delivery and research has found a link between dates and a reduction of bleeding postpartum. With this information it is concluded that dates are a real benefit to women in pregnancy and those who are breastfeeding.

Enjoy dates all year round as a snack, and here as the secret ingredients in our boozy, nutty alternative to Christmas pudding.

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