We’ve always been careful not to make snap judgments about foods that go together, but in the culinary world, there are some that work together like good marriages—strawberries and cream, bacon and eggs, chicken and rice, and bread and butter. To the list of culinary duos, we add dates and nuts, as in date-nut bread, date-nut cookies, and date-nut tart.
The tart we have in mind, with chopped dates and walnuts, is a takeoff on pecan pie, the cloyingly sweet custard pie that’s regarded as a Southern classic and has become a happy addition to our Thanksgiving table. Like any tart, the sides are straight and the filing is shallow and it fits nicely with our deep, slope-sided pumpkin pie. But alongside the dense pumpkin custard, the date-nut filling has a polished, shiny look, which makes it a “transparent” custard pie.
To set us straight on custard pies, we went to As Easy As Pie by Susan G. Purdy (Collier Books, 1984), who we’ve always considered a baking expert. In her section on chess pies, Purdy writes that pecan pies, a variation of chess pies, originated in the 18th century when bakers had the luxury of ample supplies of eggs, butter and molasses. When sugar replaced molasses, pies were made with lots of sugar, which not only made them keep longer, but gave them their shiny look. Purdy is less clear about the word “chess,” but the story we like best is the plantation cook who was asked what was baking that smelled so good. “Jes’ pie,” she said.
—By Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburnham, Mass.