The next time you're looking for a sweet end to a Middle Eastern-inspired meal, try a no-bake dessert that's a standard among Iranian cooks. A pair of small helper's hands can stuff walnut pieces into tender pitted dates – which form the cake's base – while you stir up a roux until it's the color of toasty caramel.
The roux, aromatic spices and finally a crumbly blanket of pistachios go on top; once they're set, the cake's ready to go.
The freshness of the walnuts is key here. Best bet: Buy them at a Middle Eastern market, where the turnover is quick.
18 to 24 servings
A soft pitted date works best for this recipe.
Make Ahead: The cake needs an hour or two to set up before serving. It can be covered and stored at room temperature for up to 4 days.
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
3 packed cups pitted dates, preferably deglet noor (about 450 g)
1 cup safflower oil (may substitute 16 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee)
2 cups flour
3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 cup shelled, coarsely ground raw pistachios
Toast the walnuts in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan so they don't scorch, until the nuts are fragrant and lightly browned. Let cool.
Line the bottom of a 25cm tart pan with a removable bottom or a spring form pan with parchment paper.
Use the walnuts to stuff each date, arranging them in the pan in a single layer as you work; this will take 15 to 20 minutes, and it should be easy to do because the dates have been split.
Heat the oil in the same skillet you used to toast the walnuts, over medium heat. Gradually add the flour, whisking constantly, to form a smooth and thick roux. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, whisking all the while, until the roux is a light mocha colour; it picks up colour especially in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Turn off the heat and stir in the sugar, until it has dissolved.
Carefully transfer the roux (it's molten hot!) to the pan; use an offset spatula or table knife to smooth it evenly over the dates, making sure they are completely covered. Immediately sprinkle the cinnamon and cardamom evenly over the roux, then top with the pistachios, to cover completely.
Let the date cake sit for at least an hour or two before serving.
When ready to serve, remove the ring from the pan.
Cut the cake into 18 to 24 squares or diamond shapes (edges and bits left over are for the cook).