Imagine the discovery of the date.
Perhaps an ancient Egyptian walking along the Nile noticed a wrinkly brown pod had fallen from the tree and dried in the sun. For some reason, he decided to taste it—and discovered the tough flesh was sweeter than nectar.
Regardless of their origin story, by 3200 BC, people were eating dates in everything: breads, stews, candies, even fermented into wine. The date palm became so important in Middle Eastern cuisine that it became a symbol of fertility; after all, it’s pretty miraculous that such a life-sustaining fruit grows in the driest desert conditions.
Today, dates are no longer just a regional food. Their delectable taste and versatility have made them a staple in healthy kitchens as a sugar substitute. Thanks to the 3 grams of fiber in each serving, they’re relatively low on the glycemic index and won’t cause a dramatic spike in blood sugar. They’re also high in antioxidants that protect against atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries), heart attack, and stroke. Not a bad way to sneak some extra nutrients into dessert.
With a flavor similar to brown sugar or molasses, dates taste best in chocolatey, nutty, or otherwise rich recipes. To swap them in for sugar, purée them into a paste and use it at a 1:1 ratio. Or just try one of our food editor Merce Muse’s recipes—she’s already done the work for you!
No need to wait until next March to get your Girl Scout cookie fix. Whip up this raw, Paleo, and vegan version of coconutty Samoas instead. Date caramel studded with shredded coconut is layered on top of a crunchy almond “cookie” base before the whole thing gets drizzled with dark chocolate.
These soft truffles get their sweetness from dates, but decadent raw cacao powder, spicy ginger, and bright orange zest are the real stars. Since they’re vegan and refined sugar–free, you can feel good about popping one as a mid-afternoon snack.
Flourless, sugarless, egg-free brownies? You better believe it. Flaxseeds and walnuts give the batter body, and since they’re absolutely grain-free, every bite is gloriously chewy and gooey.
Our healthier take on Scotcheroos (essentially peanut butter–and–chocolate Rice Krispies treats) combines coconut cereal, dark chocolate, and almond butter. The chopped almonds and cacao nibs are just an added bonus.
Think of these gluten-free treats as a cross between blueberry muffins and spice bread. Studded with blueberries and filled with warm jam, they have all the sweetness you crave, with an intriguing kick from turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and even a little black pepper.
Two common ingredients in Middle Eastern cuisines—tahini and dates—come together in slightly salty, chewy golden-brown cookies. The rich nutty flavor pairs well with a hot cup of tea.
Going Paleo doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to a life of steamed vegetables and bland chicken—treat yourself to a caveman-approved candy bar every now and then. Take this Twix replica, for example: it’s just almonds, date caramel, and a cacao powder–coconut oil coating!
You can blend a few dates into almost any smoothie or non-dairy milk for some added sweetness, as in our silky, indulgent cashew milk spiked with traditional chai spices.
Don’t wait until next Thanksgiving to enjoy the classic Southern dessert. It’s wonderful on just about any occasion, and less guilt-inducing when you swap in dates for corn syrup. The crisp chocolate crust surrounding that irresistible pecan filling is an extra craveworthy touch.
Fruit cake doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. In our version, the gluten-free batter bursts with apricots, dates, cherries, and all kinds of nuts—a much needed upgrade.
Who are we kidding? Dates are pretty much dessert on their own. Make ’em really shine by stuffing them with cinnamon- and cayenne-laced mixed nuts, then coating them in dark chocolate. Bonus: they’re easily portable for picnics and gatherings!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont