Date With Destiny

Amelia Saltsman last wrote for the magazine about porcini soup

THE DAY DAWNED RAINY, PUTTING A KIBOSH on the planned hike up Mt. Diablo in Northern California. Instead we spent the morning gazing out the windows at wind-buffeted mustard fields and clouds hanging low over the hills. We watched red-winged blackbirds, house sparrows and finches nibble from feeders hanging outside the ranch-style house in Walnut Creek. My daughter Rebecca and I had come from Davis and Los Angeles, respectively, for a visit with friend and cookbook author Marion Cunningham at her home, with hopes for a ramble through Diablo State Park.

Somehow a lazy morning padding about the house made us as hungry as if we'd actually hiked the mountain. So my daughter and I helped Marion set out cheeses, dense Danish rye bread, Marion's ever-present crock of room-temperature butter and green olives that Marion had cured herself from the tree she'd planted 30 years ago after her mother died.

Marion Cunningham loves simple pleasures. And the best of these, according to "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" author, is having guests--a meal shared in good company. "I'm a missionary about getting people to sit down together to eat," she admits. Her most recent books, "Cooking with Children" and "Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham," attest to this vision. And so we laughed and chatted over our uncomplicated lunch at the teakwood table.

Marion always keeps cookies in the freezer should visitors drop by, and she pulled out a bag of caramel date rolls for dessert. "They were James Beard's favorites. I sent them to him every Christmas."

I should have guessed that if the dean of American cookery loved them, we would too. Like lunch, they were simple yet great: walnut-stuffed whole dates that are gilded with a wisp of sour cream pastry and a nutty browned-butter glaze, and tasting of spicy caramel.

Marion's impetus for serving this dessert were the dates I had brought as a gift from the Santa Monica Farmers Market--syrupy Barhis and large Medjools. From them she planned to make a variation on the sumptuous confections she regularly turns out using the prepackaged Deglet Noor dates from the supermarket.

Back in Los Angeles, I tried her recipe with premium dates, including Deglets from a small grower who sells at farmers markets throughout Southern California. I'm hooked, and now I, too, keep these caramel date rolls on hand to serve to special friends.

Our rainy-day picnic with Marion reminded me of an earlier meal I'd shared with her, and the entertaining lesson I learned on that occasion. She was to be in L.A. briefly and wanted to stop by. I scanned the fridge and pantry; what could I serve for an impromptu Sunday supper? My husband dashed to the market for fresh bread and ham. I steamed new potatoes, rolled them in butter and salt and sliced a few succulent tomatoes. As my family gathered at the table with Marion, I apologized for the humbleness of the meal. Marion turned to me, "Dear," she soothed, "James always said, 'What's good is good.' " I just wish I'd had some cookies in the freezer.

Caramel-Covered Stuffed Date Rolls

Yield: about 60 cookies

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60 pitted dates (use only moist dates)

60 walnut halves or about 11/4 cups large walnut pieces

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, at room temperature, plus

additional for dipping

3/4 cup light-brown sugar, packed

1 egg

1/2 cup sour cream

11/2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

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Cut a slit in top of each date, open sides and remove seed. Stuff each date with a walnut half or 2 or 3 walnut pieces and set aside on piece of wax paper. Put butter into large mixing bowl. Add sugar a little at a time and, using large spoon, beat butter and sugar together until smooth. Add egg and beat until blended. Blend in sour cream. In smaller bowl, stir together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and briskly beat ingredients together until smooth and well mixed. Using your fingers, dip each stuffed date into batter and spread batter all over date. Place coated dates on 2 ungreased baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between each. Bake at 375 degrees until cookies look lightly golden around edges, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer to racks. While first batch is baking make glaze so you can spoon it over cookies while they are still warm.

Glaze

3 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

About 2 tablespoons cold water

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Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. As butter melts, tilt pan from side to side so butter moves around and melts completely. Remove from heat and stir in powdered sugar, vanilla and just enough water to make a runny glaze. Stir until smooth. Drizzle a little glaze over each cookie with teaspoon. Let glaze set firmly; this takes about 10 or 15 minutes. Store cookies in airtight containers or resealable plastic bags.

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