Recipe: Palestinian Date-Tahini Cake

Pastry chef Nadine Kopty recreates her grandmother's famous cake, stirring in a little cultural love in the process

In the late 1960s, my grandmother was asked to make her delicious date cake live on Jordan’s only television channel. She appeared again on Barnamej al-Usra, the weekly program about hospitality and housekeeping, a handful of times until her short-lived television career ended when she moved to the United States in 1969. As part of his debut novel, my brother fictionalized that first television appearance based on the stories we were told by our grandmother and the memories that her husband and children have about the excitement and delight of watching her on TV.            

While I was impressed by these stories, I was not surprised that my charming and sassy grandmother had become famous for her baking, even if her renown didn’t last very long. Ever since I can remember, my grandparents have spent most of their free time in the kitchen making food for the family. They source their ingredients from the best markets in Colorado and their own backyard garden, where my grandfather has kept a succession of fruits and vegetables that they love and miss from their homeland. What made their passion even more powerful and meaningful in our lives is that it represented the most important connection we had to our Palestinian cultural heritage; we learned about our history and stories through the food that we ate.  

It was these stories that motivated my brother to write a novel inspired by our family (full of farming, cooking and eating scenes!) and led me in an unexpected, but perhaps inevitable way, to a career in food as a professional pastry chef. As a gift for my graduation from pastry school, my grandmother gave me her collection of hand-written recipes that she wrote and perfected over decades. Preserved on those yellowing pages, between covers reinforced with brown packing tape, are the secrets of those famous television cakes and recipes for dozens of treats that she learned from others and created herself. One of my favorite things to do is to take those inherited recipes and infuse them with my own experiences and modern twists – sharing them and passing them on the way my grandmother did. 

Date-Tahini Cake 3
These photos were taken at a birthday party in Amman in 1966. The top photo shows a table full of baked treats and birthday hats. The bottom photo shows the kids gathered around the cakes; my mother in the bottom left hand corner and my aunt standing beside her in a matching dress; my uncle is the first boy on the left in the bowtie. Photos courtesy of Yazan Kopty.

This recipe for my date and tahini cake is my homage to the cake that my grandmother made on her first television appearance almost fifty years ago. I used extra-soft khalas dates from a family-friend’s farm near Dubai, and tahini with the most colorful and tacky packaging I could find – you can use whatever dates and tahini you like!   

Nadine and Teta Aida’s Date and Tahini Cake

Makes one 20-22cm cake

Ingredients:

  • 300 grams (1 ¼ Cup) pitted dates
  • hot water *
  • 60 grams (¼ Cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 60-120 grams (¼ to ½ Cup) of brown sugar **
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 grams ( <½ Cup) tahini
  • 150 grams (⅝ Cup) flour
  • 10 grams/ 2 tsp baking soda
  • 5 grams/ 1 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • Toasted sesame seeds for decoration

*Depending on the softness of your dates, see step 3

**The softer the dates, typically the sweeter, so adjust your sugar to your liking.

Instructions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 160°C (320°F), and prepare your cake pan by generously greasing it with butter. I recommend using a springform pan, especially if you’d like to decorate it with sesame seeds.
  2. First make your date paste. Start by soaking your dates in hot water for 5 minutes or longer and then mashing them.
  3. The softer the dates the less water needed to make the paste. Also this is where you can adjust the texture to your liking. Want chunks of dates in your cake? Use less water and mash them a little. Want a smoother paste? Allow them to soak for longer and then mash them until they are smooth.
  4. Once you’ve finished the date paste, set aside.
  5. Sift your flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and the set aside.
  6. With a mixer beat your butter and sugar until creamy, then add the eggs. Continue to beat until smooth.
  7. Fold in the tahini and date paste and thoroughly combine.
  8. Then fold your dry mixture into the wet a 1/3 at a time until fully combined.
  9. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and coat the top generously with toasted sesame seeds.
  10. Bake for about 35-45 minutes or until the center springs back when touched.
  11. The cake will be very dark, so don’t gauge by color too much!

Tahini

Nadine Kopty

www.nadinekopty.com

Nadine is a certified baking nerd, who talks about meringues in way too much detail. She loves to feed others (sometimes against their will) and to experiment with flavors and ingredients from the many cultures she grew up in and around. At pastry school, Nadine was crowned ‘Queen of Cardamom’, managing to incorporate her favorite spice into every dessert. Despite her terrible sense of direction, she can always direct you to the best bakeries, pâtisseries, chocolate shops and ice cream parlours from Brussels to Beirut. Passionate about food and marketing, Nadine has just joined local food events company in Dubai, UAE.