I’ve always loved the fragrant, spice-infused cuisines of nations located at the crossroads of North Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe that cookbook author and chef Sally Butcher draws on for her latest publication.

So, when Butcher’s 10th-anniversary reissue of New Middle Eastern Street Food (titled Snackistan when originally published in 2013 in the United Kingdom) leaves me hungry and itching to create its many included dishes myself, I decide on following one.

Sally Butcher
Yuki Sugiura
Sally Butcher, author of 2023’s New Middle Eastern Street Food, seen here at her Middle Eastern vegetarian restaurant, Persopolis, in London’s East Peckham, has taken inspiration from the food cultures of North Africa and the Middle East to recreate dishes like this date-and-fig loaf that everyone will love.

I opt for the khobez timur, Butcher’s own word-for-word Arabic translation of “date bread”, because figs have always enthralled me and dates to this day stir fond memories of when I was a kid in Houston, Texas, going to Middle Eastern restaurants. And this recipe inches me to an improved understanding beyond the culture from which Butcher draws this date-and-fig bread-loaf recipe, which itself is inspired by the ma`amul (a type of a cookie), the khubz ma`ruk (sweet brioche-like bread) and other date-filled baked goods found from the Levant, along the Mediterranean Coast, eastward to the Fertile Crescent of Iraq and Iran.

Born and raised in the UK, Butcher first fell in love with Middle Eastern cuisine when she met her Persian husband in the early 1990s. In 2001 the pair opened a deli in London’s East Peckham that has since morphed into Persepolis, their popular Middle Eastern vegetarian restaurant. As Butcher has built out the restaurant’s menu, which includes traditional Middle Eastern fare and her own riffs on traditional recipes, she has learned to take a more relaxed approach to cooking. “The older I get, the cheekier I get,” she says. “Now, if something goes wrong, instead of getting upset, I just shrug and say, ‘Ah yes, well, that was all part of my plan!’ It’s a much better way to cook. And to live!”

And the prolific book author wants us to adopt the same approach. In all her recipes, Butcher allows for last-minute substitutions, mistakes and adjustments based on taste, saying she intended for us to play with the recipes, including her iteration of khobez timur. “You shouldn’t be feeling terrible if it calls for dark-brown sugar, but you only have light, or need to use a different kind of date,” she says. “I’m all about keeping it simple. These are dishes that are meant to recreate what people across the Middle East might enjoy at home.”

Ingredients for Khobez Timur: A Date-and-Fig Bread-loaf
Dianna Wray


Step One: The Prep Work

Intent on duplicating this treat, I assemble the ingredients on a wedge of counterspace in my galley kitchen and set aside some newly boiled Earl Grey tea before I start chopping the dried pitted dates and figs. There’s no hard, fast rule about how fine the fruit needs to be, so I opt for larger chunks, especially those that I feel will morph into juicy morsels I can bite into. I plop the dried fruit into a glass mixing bowl filled with steaming tea. 

Step Two: Wet Ingredients

I stir in a cup of brown sugar, followed by 125 grams of butter, into a large glass bowl. Although Butcher’s recipe instructs that the butter should be softened, if you overshoot and fully melt the butter in the microwave, don’t stress out. The butter (after trying the recipe with both salted and unsalted European butter, I prefer the unsalted) is going right into the steaming bowl of fruit steeping in tea and sugar. 

Step Three: The Dry Ingredients

Resisting the urge to spoon pieces of fig and date into my mouth, I measure out the cardamom, cinnamon and other dry ingredients. Here, I go rogue with the recipe. Butcher clearly states that you need only 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 of cardamom, but the sharp, aromatic tang of cardamom proves enticing. I measure 2 teaspoons into the glass bowl. Here’s an added tip: If you didn’t purchase your walnuts in pieces and don’t feel like chopping them, a mallet, wrapped in a towel, breaks the walnuts into bits nicely. 

I whisk the dry ingredients together in my glass mixing bowl and set it aside. 

Step Five: Combining Wet and Dry Ingredients

While the oven preheats to 180 degrees Celsius, I grease a glass baking pan with a pat of butter. (Butcher suggests lining the tray with wax paper, but the butter works just fine for me.) Then I begin combining the wet and dry ingredients into a 3-liter glass mixing bowl. The dry ingredients and the mix of tea-soaked fruit, butter and sugar blend together smoothly, at first. Although the mixture initially has a cake-batter-like consistency, it thickens as the contents of both mixing bowls are combined in another, larger metal bowl.

Once everything combines into a doughy consistency and is evenly distributed, I pat the resulting batter into the baking loaf pan. Then I take some of the remaining walnut pieces (halves if you have them) and press them into the top of the dough. The pieces double as a bit of decoration on the dessert, toasting as the bread bakes. Keep in mind that you can have these walnuts beeline across the length of the bread or just cut them up and arrange them in any shape or pattern you can think up.

Step Six: Baking

I slide the baking pan into the oven. Now, it’s just a matter of time, 45 minutes, according to the recipe. (If you like your baked goods on the softer side, I suggest pulling it out a few minutes early. I’ve baked this a few times now, and it has stayed in the oven for the full 45 minutes just once.)

Step Seven: Baked

First, a warm, spicy scent fills the kitchen. At 42 minutes, I decide it has cooked enough. A perfectly shaped loaf of khobez timur emerges along with waves of oven heat. After about 10 minutes of cooling, it’s ready to cut. Each slice—moist but firm and studded with walnuts—delights my palate, so much so that I struggle to resist having just one piece.

And just like that, as Butcher and this recipe remind us, keeping it simple does indeed make a better recipe for living.