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Date, Goat Cheese & Black Pepper Pastries

Sometimes I come across food products that if I don’t have an immediate idea of what to do with them, I just know they’ll taste good. They hang out in my pantry or freezer until I become inspired. That’s what happened when I found a block of date paste in the Middle Eastern section of my local supermarket. When I finally opened the package, the paste was very thick and somewhat sticky. It was so delicious that it brought back a memory of really good date and walnut cookies I had eaten during Christmas decades ago. This thought led me to Brie with honey and walnuts which reminded me of both cheese-filled Danishes and baklava. This barrage of inspiration resulted in this pastry. Instead of Brie, I use tangy goat’s cheese and it balances the sweetness of the date paste beautifully.

By the way, this date-filled pastry would be a symbolic and richly delicious way to break the daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan (a time of contemplation commemorating when the prophet Muhammad received the first teachings of the Quran). Tradition says that Muhammad himself broke his own fast by eating three dates.

Whenever or even however you eat this pastry—it’s good warm from the oven or cold from the fridge—it’ll make your belly happy. My belly is doubly happy when I have these with a cup of strong black coffee or fragrant jasmine green tea. Enjoy!

4-oz goat’s cheese

4 TBS date paste

Juice of half a lemon (about 2 TBS)

3 TBS chopped toasted walnuts (reserve 1 TBS for garnish)

Pinch of salt

Cracked black pepper, to taste

12 sheets phyllo dough, 9” x 14”, defrosted according to package directions

¼ cup (half a stick) butter, melted

1 - 2 TBS honey, pinch of sea salt, and cracked black pepper as garnish

Remove the goat’s cheese from the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before using to soften (it’ll be easier to mix).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, add the date paste and lemon juice. Using a hand mixer, beat on medium-high until the date paste is looser (about one minute). Add the goat’s cheese and beat until smooth. Using a spatula fold in the walnuts, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of cracked black pepper. You should have about one cup of filling. Set aside.

Fill the phyllo dough. You will use three sheets of phyllo per pastry. Filling the phyllo is similar to folding a flag.

Place a sheet of phyllo dough onto a large cutting board or pastry board (long side facing you). Brush gently with melted butter.

Top with another sheet and brush with butter.

Top with the third sheet of dough and gently brush with butter.

Fold the dough in half from the bottom. Brush with butter.

In the bottom right corner of the rectangle and about 1 to 2 inches from the edge, place one-fourth of the date filling (about ¼ cup).

Fold the corner over the mixture evenly and snugly. Lightly brush with butter.

Fold corner over corner, brushing with butter at each fold, until you get to the end of the dough and the pastry is in the shape of a triangle. Place on a sheet pan lined with parchment or a silicone mat. Brush the top with butter. Repeat with the rest of the filling and phyllo.

Bake for 15 - 17 minutes or until golden brown on the bottom and top. Cool for 10 minutes.

To serve, drizzle the honey and sprinkle the reserved walnuts evenly over the pastries. Sprinkle each pastry with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Makes 4.

Don’t Freak Out!

1) Make it nut-free. Substitute 2 TBS toasted sesame seeds for the 3 TBS of walnuts. Add 1 TBS into the filling and sprinkle the remaining 1 TBS sesame seeds over the top of the pastries as a garnish.

2) Make it gluten-free. Substitute gluten-free puff pastry for the phyllo dough (it may be easier to find on-line than in your store). Roll out the puff pastry into a square (about 4 – 5 inches). Beat an egg with water and lightly brush the edges of the square with the egg. Place the date filling evenly on one corner of the square (about an inch from the edge). Pull the opposite corner of the dough over the filling, gently sealing the edges (you’ll have a triangle). Brush the top of the pastry with the egg and bake according to package directions until golden brown. Also, you can buy prepared gluten-free pie crusts (or make it from a mix) and use it to make hand pies.

3) Make it vegan. Substitute melted vegan margarine for the butter; 4 ounces of vegan cream cheese or vegan chevre for the goat’s cheese (it may be easier to find the vegan cream cheese in your market; the chevre you may have to order on-line); and drizzle the pastries lightly with agave nectar, date syrup, or coconut syrup instead of honey. Packaged phyllo dough is already free of dairy and eggs.

4) Phyllo (filo or fillo) dough can be tricky—but not impossible—to work with. While you’re brushing one sheet with butter, keep the rest of the dough covered under a lightly damp (not wet), lint-free kitchen towel. If there are any tears in the dough, lightly “glue” it together with the melted butter.

Also, phyllo dough is often sold in boxes containing two packages of 20 sheets each. Leave one of the packages in the freezer and defrost the other package (see directions on the box). After making this recipe, you should have 8 sheets remaining. What I like to do with the leftovers is: lightly brush the sheets with butter, sprinkle a little cinnamon and sugar on each sheet, layer the sheets on top of each other, cut the sheets into strips or shapes, and then bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or until golden brown. They’re delicious crumbled over vanilla, cinnamon, or caramel ice cream or gelato. Or you could go savory and sprinkle on cracked black pepper, garlic powder, and grated parmesan cheese instead and serve them on top of salad.

5) You can store the pastries tightly wrapped for up to 2 days in the refrigerator—just don’t add the honey before wrapping them. While they can be reheated (toaster oven rather than microwave), they won’t be as crisp—and if you really overheat them, they’ll be greasy. I actually prefer to remove the pastries from the fridge for 10 – 15 minutes and then eat them. They hold their shape and crispiness better.

6) You can make these smaller if you want or easily double or triple the recipe.

7) The date paste I used was sold as “baking dates” which was a 13-oz block (more than you need for this recipe). You can freeze the remaining paste with great success; I like to pre-measure it to make this recipe again in the future and then store those small amounts in freezer-safe containers for up to 6 months. You could also use the date paste in your favorite oatmeal cookie recipe or blend into smoothies or salad dressings.

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