In the late 1980s, my mother’s friend Vasanti-bhabi issued a challenge. As part of the traditional Diwali treat exchange, she gave my mom a nutty, fudgy mystery log, wrapped in aluminum foil, and asked her—if she enjoyed the dish—to identify its ingredients.
Mom accepted this challenge with great joy. Apart from the log itself, her only clues were that it came from a strictly Jain home, and that it was part of their religious offerings at Diwali, a celebration when many devout Hindus maintain a lacto-vegetarian diet. It was brown in color but didn’t taste of chocolate. It was not quite firm, but it didn’t fall apart. And since it was from a Jain home, my mother knew that it did not contain eggs. She nibbled through the gifted log and tried to replicate it. Her experiments became my after-school snacks.
Eventually, she settled on a recipe using only three ingredients: dates, condensed milk, and an assortment of chopped nuts. The next time she visited Vasanti-bhabi, Mom brought a finished nut-studded log as a hostess gift. Vasanti-bhabi loved it, surprised at the near-exact replica of the date dessert she’d given my mother just a few weeks before. Ever since, Vasanti-bhabi’s date log has been part of my family’s Diwali traditions.
My mom always taught me that treats made during Diwali are deliberately decadent and filled with rich ingredients, because the celebration is about sharing joy, and giving and receiving abundant blessings. In her kitchen, good food remains an important way to show care and love. So she will purchase the very best dried fruits and nuts for her Diwali treats, whether they’re shared with family or made for friends.
Diwali is a lunar celebration, but always arrives at some point in the fall. Some Diwali treats are sweet, others are savory. Most are made with dried fruits and nuts and dairy; many use ghee. Diwali sweets include several categories of preparations: fudges, known as burfi, that are pressed or poured into a tray; ladu or laddoo (individually hand-crafted spherical sweets); crunchy and fried snacks like boondi, half-moons of stuffed, fried dough; rich dairy-based dishes like kheer; and many others.
As my brother and I left home to go abroad, the fudgy date log became an essential part of our travel and post-travel rations. Although ladus would have been more traditional travel rations, they wouldn’t have held their shape in our long international journeys. A date log was easier to make and carry, and many such logs survived airport security screenings.
I started making the date log in the early years of my marriage, while celebrating Diwali in the US away from family. However, the log form made portion control difficult, and slices began to mysteriously disappear from our refrigerator. So I began rolling the mixture into balls, to serve as a ladu instead—an adaptation that actually makes the preparation easier to share.
In years when the celebrations for Diwali and Thanksgiving were close together, I have made a double batch of the date balls to add to our Thanksgiving potluck spread. They fit right in—a taste of home among the piles of cookies and trays of pies. This recipe has become my way of sharing our family tradition with a new chosen family of friends.
Treat exchanges were always part of my childhood Diwali. I would ferry treat-loaded platters to neighbors, who would refill my empty plate with their own home-made goodies. We got to sample many regional delicacies and shared recipes of dishes we loved. I’d think of those days while we gathered here with friends for Thanksgiving, cooking and eating together, and swapping recipes back and forth.
Although this year’s celebrations for both Diwali and Thanksgiving will look different for all of us, I plan to keep some of the food traditions alive. I’ll package these date ladus and ship them to friends: a hug in a box.
Khajur Ladu (Date, Pistachio, and Almond Morsels)Nandita Godbole
A few things to keep in mind when making this dessert:
You’ll need a good chopping board, and a clean knife, plus:
A small food chopper: While you can chop nuts on a cutting board, a food chopper makes it easy, and the cleanup is quicker. Don’t use a food processor, which will convert the nuts into a powder even in a few short pulses.
A nonstick pan: This dish starts off with a soup-like consistency and gets increasingly sticky as the dates soften. As the mixture thickens, it will be important to be able to scrape off the unformed fudgy mass without letting it burn.
A heat-resistant spatula: The dish requires constant stirring until it is completely reduced and thickened. Therefore, all utensils used during the active cooking process must be able to withstand the heat.
A spring loaded ice-cream scoop will make it easier to portion out the warm fudge.
A small glass bowl will help shape the balls more easily. If you plan to include them on a festive platter, mini muffin cups make great holders for individual ladoos.
You will need good quality raw materials since these date balls have no added fillers or flavorings. While it’s common for Diwali sweets to be spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, or saffron, this recipe leaves them out, since the dates have a robust and rich flavor and aroma of their own.
Dates: I find that Middle Eastern and Asian markets are the best places to find good quality dates—you can also order superlative dates directly from farms like Flying Disc Ranch and Rancho Meladuco. Look for glossy and soft Medjool dates without extensive dry or crumbly parts. Some superficial drying on the skin of dates is natural, but fully dried dates, also known as Kharek, cannot be substituted here. Remove any stems or dried bits before deseeding and chopping the dates.
Nuts: Choose unroasted (raw) unsalted nuts for this recipe. Do a random taste test on nuts to ensure that the batch of nuts is still fresh. Nuts can get rancid over time or with improper storage. Although almond meal can be purchased pre-prepared, freshly chopped nuts retain their flavor better and add more creaminess to the dish. While the recipe recommends unsalted and unroasted almonds and pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts and pecans also work well. Don’t be tempted to prepare the pistachio meal in advance; it must be made on the same day as you’re preparing the date balls, as pistachio meal tends to lose some of its delicate flavor and color when exposed to air for more than a day.
Once your ingredients are gathered, the method is simple: You’ll cook the trimmed, chopped dates and nuts in milk, letting the mixture thicken over medium heat. The preparation needs constant stirring while it cooks—this isn’t the time to juggle other cooking tasks. Once reduced—but still warm to the touch—you’ll scoop the date fudge scooped into a bowl of crushed pistachios, rolling it around until the ball is completely covered and easy to handle. Individual date morsels can then be transferred to mini-cupcake liners or served as is.
You can, of course, form a log or mini-loaf if you prefer to skip the ball-forming stage. Just line a mini loaf tray with plastic wrap. Pour the date and nut mixture into it, and wrap the mix to cover the mixture well. Freeze it for three to six hours to make it a bit easier to cut. Remove from freezer, unwrap, and slice carefully, storing the sliced portions in a sealed container in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Slices of the date and nut log will soften a little in the fridge, which makes them easier to enjoy.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious