Date squares. Or do you call them bars? By whatever name, they were not a product of my childhood kitchen. My earliest association with these fruit-stuffed cookie sandwiches was elementary school bake sales, set up in the halls of our school for some charitable endeavour or another.
Those were exciting times, when our milk money was augmented with a few extra coins from Mum so that my brother and I could purchase a treat of our own choosing. Of our own choosing! I remember being giddy at the thought of such power. Upon arrival at school, all eyes would grow wide as the exotic array of baked goods emerged from backpacks. The riches were transferred to the careful hands of parent volunteers who laid them out on long tables in the hall outside our classroom. I don't know how I kept myself from swooning at the sight. Nor do I know how we lasted through what surely seemed an interminable wait until lunchtime.
A child of specific tastes, the exact moment the big hand and the little hand met at the top of the clock and that lunch bell rang, I'd make a beeline for the Rice Krispie treats. How do I love thee, you golden bricks of marshmallow-and-butter-bathed cereal. They were first-class sugar bombs, and a guilty favourite to this day. I vaguely recall date squares had their place on those tables, but they resided only on the edge of my awareness.
Fast forward to yesterday, when I had in my possession a stash of Medjools. I'd bought some for the specific purpose of a sticky-toffee-pudding-inspired cake; but when the matter of the cake was taken care of, a few handfuls remained, succulent and sweet beneath their sugar-flaked skin. In consideration of my previous nonchalance, it was surprising choice that I set about knocking together a pan of date squares. The first date squares I've ever baked.
I consulted various recipes, and took the best from the varied incarnations of date squares (bars?) I found. Some were with a shortbreadish base that had the butter and sugar creamed together before the introduction of the flour. A few had eggs involved, while most did not. There were oats and nuts to consider, and then there were dialogues in regards to the filling; sweeten or not to sweeten. Options galore.
I decided my treasures should be left as they were, so I stewed the dates briefly, then processed them into a dense, gungy purée that squelched pleasingly when spooned. The kicker in the filling was the few specks of floral-sharp clementine zest, which light up the mellowness of the dates like sparklers in the night sky. It was a modest elaboration that made all the difference.
The rest followed a simple method, you make the same sort of crisp topping I like for crumbles; cold butter is cut into a flour mixture to form irregular clumps, clumps which melt upon baking and crisp the surrounding dry ingredients into a rough and golden landscape. In this case the flour and oats are divided, with half patted into a tin to form the bottom crust. The dates slump in next, then the rest of the mixture is scattered over top.
When baked, the date filling sinks and seeps into the lower crust, so that the line between the two is blurred and what is left perfectly-bound strata of oats and fruit. The topping is not invited to their party and so turns sandy and delicate, crunchy only here and there. The perfect offset to the heft that lies beneath.
From the oven, the pan must rest, first on the counter and then in the fridge. The butter, and there is a good deal of butter here, firms up just enough to give it all some additional structure and the layers get a chance to settle into each other. All that's left is to cut the pan into bars (squares?) before you take a piece in one hand, a cold glass of milk in the other, and feel rather smug about your handiwork. There is something to be said for the act of slicing a tray of cookies that gives such a gratifying feeling of provision - a few swift swipes of the blade and you can feed a household for days. Happily. Handily.
I do not know what I was expecting with that first bite, but I surely wasn't expecting this. The skimpy serving of spices I had granted the crust had made their presence known in the most wonderful way; the squares were perfumed with the dark, deep notes of the wintry spices, and tasted of everything homespun and old-fashioned. And I liked it very much.
Now if by some rift in the space-time continuum third-grade me happens to be reading this, please take my advice and maybe give date squares a chance. And while we're at it, let me tell you now that our brief, torrid dalliance with crimped hair in the fifth grade is not a good idea. I don't care if all your friends own crimping irons, it's not a good look for them either.
Heed my words, younger me, you'll understand when you're older. And save your pennies for the next bake sale.
Oat and Nut Date Squares
Adapted from a variety of sources. I used some clementine to flavour the filling, but a few grates of orange zest would be just as good.
10 ounces (around 2 cups) pitted dates
1 cup water
zest from half a clementine
1/2 cup ground nuts, see note
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
a pinch of ground clove
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed, see note
6 ounces (3/4 cup, 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at coldish room temperature, diced
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and line an 9-inch square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.
In a small saucepan, pour the water over the dates. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium low to maintain a simmer, cooking the fruit until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the dates become a soft, concentrated paste, around 10 minutes. Stir often. Set the fruit aside to cool, stir in the clementine zest.
Once the dates are cool, purée them in a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Scrape out the dates to a bowl as best as you can, but don't worry if there's a bit left behind. Set the fruit aside.
Into the processor, add in the nuts, flours, salt, baking soda and spices. Pulse to combine. Add the sugar and pulse again. Using your fingers to keep the pieces separated, crumble in the butter into the dry ingredients. Pulse again a few times until the flour and butter mixture resembles a coarse, uneven meal. Pour the mixture into a large bowl and stir in the oats.
Press a generous half of the crust mixture into the prepared pan. Spoon the date filling over, spreading it to cover the crust completely. Sprinkle the rest of the crust mixture over the fruit. Bake in the preheated oven until the top crust is golden brown and crisp, around 30 minutes. Rotate the pan once during baking.
Cool the bars completely on a rack, still in the pan. Once at room temperature, chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up. Slice as desired, serving them at room temperature or chilled.
Makes one 9-inch square pan, can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature or refrigerated (my preference).
• You can choose the nuts to use here. I went with walnuts (robust), but pecans (buttery) and almonds (fragrant) are also good candidates. In the case of nut allergies (hi Hannah!), use an additional 1/2 cup of either of the flours.
• The kosher salt remains noticeable in the crust; if you prefer a less discernible result, use a finer-grained salt and possibly use less.
• I am tempted to try these again with 3/4 cup brown sugar and 1 1/4 cup of oats, but my family has said that they should be as they are. Just thought I'd mention.