Even if you’re the kind of person who thinks there could be nothing less appetizing than a humble date ball, I hope you’ll consider making these. Brown sugar and butter caramelize in a pan while whole dates melt slowly into the mix, and you stir them together with toasted almonds, a little crunchy salt and vanilla, plus a few ingredients that fall into the background to create texture–pretty heady stuff. My Dear Husband tried politely to dissuade me from making them this morning. I was on my way to a family luncheon, the annual gathering of the female descendants of the Sheridan sisters, and he was seriously doubtful about any recipe involving dates, but especially wary, it seemed, of something called date balls. The name does have a certain thud about it, and they definitely won’t be entering any Sexiest Dessert competitions. But they are my favorite kind of recipe to make, the kind of cookie that is a genuine surprise, unassuming and homey and packed with flavor, a bygone or lost recipe, nearly forgotten. My great aunt’s recipe calls for dates and sugar, nuts, Rice Krispies cereal, and sweetened angel flake coconut. I opted to up the caramel flavor by swapping in brown sugar, chose almonds and toasted them in the oven, added puffed brown rice in place of the Krispies, and rolled them in unsweetened coconut.
These cookies are special to me for other reasons, too, though. Whenever I eat one I am back in her kitchen reliving an important memory. We never did have a conversation about it; we didn’t need to. My great aunt, whom we called grandma, was someone who tried to do twice as much listening as she did talking, and she lived her faith in the least flag-waving and conspicuous way possible. Her neighborhood, the Merriam Park section of St. Paul, was a rough, mixed race place that saw its share of petty violence and worse in the early 1970s. I often played at the park nearest her house and knew when I saw a knife come out of a pocket that it was time to scurry home. The boys at the park scared me, but it was a place to play on a hot summer day, and it had a rusty slide and a swing set where I could pretty much keep to myself. In my imagination the boys there had wild lives to match their tempers, and perhaps they did, but I met them properly as they walked past my grandma’s house one afternoon when I was on the front steps, and called to her to tell her they had passed. She dashed to the door to invite them in for date balls and a cold glass of milk, and they accepted. Into the kitchen they piled, contraband and all, concealed behind big grins. I wanted to take her aside, to tell her that they were dangerous, to warn her about what might happen should they come in, to make it all stop and rewind to the moment where I could have just shut my mouth, and since I couldn’t, to tell her, for goodness sake, that I was on tenterhooks and that she was most definitely out of her mind. But the boys were as sweet as could be, polite, gracious, and funny. When they left my grandma gave me a knowing look. I got it. They were just like me. And her kindness meant so much to them. Under all that bravado were boys who loved to talk to my grandma, who were so happy to be invited in and to chat with her. I never saw them or anyone quite the same way after that. They stopped in now and then over their growing up years, in groups of two or three or four, for more date balls or crackers with peanut butter or a glass of lemonade. They were short visits, always jovial. And I carried that idea of hospitality with me into adulthood.
When my children were small I made it a point to always have something baked in the house to offer to whatever neighborhood kids might pass by. By then, our American culture, and the outdoor habits of children, had changed, though. Kids didn’t play unattended anymore as we once did, wandering on long summer days, and getting up to fun and mischief. I saw the good in that, especially as a parent. But I grieved the idea of a community of kids, of the freedom that we enjoyed, and the lessons we learned from each other, from being forced as a group to figure it out—the rules to a game or who was up first, how to climb back down from a billboard, or how to divide the candy bar you all pitched in for—and the idea of the grownup figures in our neighborhoods and in our lives. I miss the idea of kids being part of a neighborhood game interrupted by mothers calling them home for supper or again as dusk is approaching. I’ve found other ways, more organized ways, to be a welcoming home. Whenever I am, I think of my grandma and these date balls, and of the afternoon I first understood how important one small date ball could really be. Here is her original recipe, in her words, and my adaptation.
My Date Balls
Adapted from Grandma Sherry’s Date Balls
Yield: about three dozen balls
1 c. whole almonds
½ c. unsalted butter
¾ c. brown sugar
one pound dates, sliced open and pitted (I used these and they were excellent.)
1 egg, beaten
1 T. milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. puffed brown rice
1 t. Celtic, or other coarse salt
1 c. unsweetened desiccated coconut
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.
- Place the almonds on a sheet pan and bake them for ten minutes, giving them a shake about halfway through the baking time. Allow them to cool a bit and then chop them into medium pieces.
- While you are waiting for the nuts to cool, in a medium saucepan over low heat, combine the butter, sugar, and dates. Cook them, stirring periodically, until the dates have broken down and the butter and brown sugar are smelling toasted and caramel-y. Remove from the heat.
- In a small bowl, beat together the egg, milk, and vanilla.
- Beat the egg mixture into the date mixture madly with a wooden spoon, so as to avoid scrambled egg forming.
- Stir in the almonds, the puffed brown rice, and the salt.
- Place the coconut in a shallow dish or bowl and drop tablespoonfuls of the date mixture into the coconut. Roll them in the coconut and into balls using the palms of your hands.
Grandma Sherry’s Date Balls
1 pound pitted dates
½ c. butter
¾ c. sugar
1 beaten egg
1 T. milk
1 t. vanilla
½ t. salt
2 c. Rice Krispies
1 c. chopped nuts
- Cut the dates in half. Boil dates, butter, sugar in shallow frying pan and stir until mushy on low heat. Set aside. Cool slightly. Add other ingredients except Rice Krispies to date mixture slowly. Pour date mixture into large bowl with Rice Krispies. Take one small package angel flake coconut and put it in a glass pie plate. Take a heaping teaspoon of date mix. Plop into coconut. Turn around to coat. Make balls with your hands. 3 dozen.