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.

INGREDIENTS

  • 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

METHOD

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).

Notes:

• 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.

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These Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars look innocent enough, but are two bites of true, gooey indulgence. Photos courtesy of Irene Powell.

Even though one may not mean to become caught up in things, sometimes it is unavoidable. Such was my case recently, as a (thankfully-mild) strain of the chicken pox made its way through our little ones, forcing our household into a state of quarantine and oatmeal baths for two weeks. This was followed closely by an infection that had Mummy curled up on the couch, slippers on and blanket pulled up tight, for another few days. Suddenly almost a month has gone by, and it seems all in a blur.

Now we are about ankle-deep in holiday preparations; events with family and friends are already scheduled, decorations are already being considered, and menu ideas are already floating around in my head. Where did this autumn go? It feels like Halloween was just yesterday.

Lucky for us, I had the book In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics standing by at the ready. In it, chef Anna Olson offers up meals and menus that have a nostalgic appeal; a bit retro, a bit kitch sometimes, but always tasty. This is feel-good eating at its best, and just the sort of food one craves when life gets a bit hectic.

While the book does include entertaining-worthy recipes like unctuous Mushroom Potato Brie Tarts and an impressive Garlic Roasted Turkey Crown with Chardonnay Pan Sauce, it is the modern classics like the Contemporary Cobb Salad, Ultimate Cheese Fondue and Baja Fish Tacos, that are, in my mind, the real draw.

Through the craziness over the last few weeks, I found myself turning to this book numerous times for inspiration. And rarely did it disappoint.

I have pledged my allegiance to steel-cut oats, but I tried Olson's version using the rolled variety when I found my cupboard was bare of the former. Surprisingly light due to the addition of oat bran, the oatmeal was delicious. So good in fact, that when mornings dawned cold and grey, I reached for this breakfast again and again.

The Rockwell Bake, a savoury bread pudding that combines all the flavours of Thanksgiving dinner, was hearty and soul-satisfying. Anna's Pot Roast was fairly-standard comfort fare, brightened through a second addition of vegetables towards the end of cooking. While good, however, what stole the show that night was the recommended accompaniment of Fluffy Dumplings. True to their title, these dumplings were pillowy-light, and an ideal way to sop up the roast's beer-soused gravy.

For those visiting the Niagara Region, Olson's two specialty food shops sell dishes from In the Kitchen with Anna as some of their prepared foods. It is a wonderful opportunity to taste some of the food before purchasing the book and also a testament to Olson's confidence in standing behind these recipes - a true mark of quality.

It was at her St. David's, Ontario, location that we were able to try the Beef, Caramelized Onion and Smoked Cheddar on Foccacia sandwich. Hot off of the panini press, the exterior was shatteringly crisp, giving way to melt-in-your-mouth slices of beef, accented by sweet onions, a slathering of grainy mustard and subtly-smoked cheese.

Since Olson is famous for her desserts, far be it from me to ignore that chapter. The Lemon Cheesecake Mousse tarts had an beautifully light texture with the perfect sharp citrus note. They managed to be delicate but luscious, all at once. Dangerously-easy to make are the Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars (photographed above, please see recipe below); to call these rich would be a gross understatement. A sturdy crust of oats and graham is scattered with both toffee and chocolate, then almonds, and finally a blanketing of sweet condensed milk. This modest effort results in a bar cookie that is tender in its belly, but slightly burnished and crisp above. Ridiculously addicting stuff.

Only one recipe fell short of expectation; the Artichoke Asiago Squares. The appetizer, somewhat akin to crustless quiche, is billed to taste like the popular dip of the same name and readers are urged "if there is no other recipe you make from this book, please make it this one." With such an introduction, these were a definite must-try. But while the squares are good, none of my tasters thought them great. The consensus was that they were best served warm, but even then the texture was not a favourite and some found the asiago could have been more pronounced. I would not call this a failure, but I would say that there are stronger dishes in the book.

The book itself is bright and colourful. The food looks fresh, shot simply, but beautifully, by Ryan Szulc. Minimally styled by Olson, the images are homey and inviting, with little fuss marring our look at the the food.

I particularly enjoyed how the recipes were laid out. Accompanying each was not only general notes included in the header, but also a three-part footnote outlining the taste, technique and tale of that particular dish. This additional information included more in-depth information about the ingredients or preparation, and also were a peek into the personality of Olson herself; the chatty, convivial tone was charming to read.

From the every day to almost every celebration, for lazy weekends and when the weekdays are flying by, In the Kitchen with Anna: New Way with the Classics includes recipes that are excellent additions to any cook's repertoire. Showing us easy, accessible cooking with touches that make each dish feel special, Olson makes a lovely kitchen companion.

CHOCOLATE ALMOND TOFFEE BARS

This recipe is one of my most requested, so I'm happy to include it in this book. — Anna Olson

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/4 tsp (1 ml) fine salt
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup (250 ml) Skor toffee bits
  • 1 cup (250 ml) chocolate chips
  • 1 cup (250 ml) sliced almonds
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and line an 8-inch (2 L) square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

Stir the oats, graham crumbs and salt in a bowl to combine, then stir in the melted butter. Press the crumbly oat mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle Skor bits evenly on top, followed by chocolate chips and sliced almonds. Pour condensed milk evenly over pan (it will sink in as it bakes) and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling. Cool to room temperature in the pan, then chill for at least 4 hours before slicing into bars.

Store toffee bars in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Makes one 8"x8" pan.

Taste

This is decadence in a pan. The sinful combination of chocolate, toffee and almonds enveloped in condensed milk that caramelizes as it bakes is irresistible. At least these have oats in them to redeem themselves, just a little bit.

Technique

This is a simple recipe to execute—you gather the ingredients and layer them, basically. The challenge is in waiting for them after they've finished baking!

Tale

My head pastry chef at Olson Foods + Bakery, Andrea, brought this recipe to my attention. She is an excellent baker, and we go way back. She started with me as a high school co-op student, while I was just picking up professional baking myself on the job, so we learned together. That was about 15 years ago, and after her stint at cooking school and gaining other work experience, I'm thrilled that we are working together again after all these years.

Additional recipes from

In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics

Huevos Rancheros

Pot Roast with Dumplings

Luncheon Sandwich Torte

Permission to print recipe and cover image courtesy Whitecap Books.

Whew. I know it is just Monday, but I already feel as though I have had a marathon week. These last few weekends have flown by, more hectic than relaxed, and I am feeling the effect.

The busyness of it all is mostly with happy tasks, thank goodness; the sort of work that is wholly gratifying, but not always easy. Renovations, projects, an almost-four-month-old delight who believes that he is grown up enough to debut his first two teeth, a most wonderfully-mischievous toddler, friends, baking, cooking, planning, organizing, birthdays ... I'll say it again. Whew.

Tomorrow a dear, dear loved one will jet off for a faraway land for an extended trip. As exciting as that is, the last few days have been abuzz with expectant, frenetic energy as we all aid in preparations for departure and simultaneously prepare ourselves for three weeks of missing someone terribly.

I am looking ahead though; this weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, and there is cooking to be done. Although this year we are not hosting the festivities, we are contributing to the celebration. I am thinking of doing David Lebovitz's showstopping Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake with Caramel Bourbon Sauce. Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread has been requested, and I might pack a tin of Pecorino Crackers from Giada De Laurentiis (these are featured in De Laurentiis' new book; look out for my review next week). My only decision left is to settle on a cranberry sauce to make.

With all of this going on, I want something quick I can nibble while doing any number of other things through my day. And so, with a bit of time to throw together something, I turned to my favourite snack for these sort of days - granola bars.

Far from the overly-cloying packaged versions that verge on candy bar status, these little offer a bit of salty and sweet; as well-suited for breakfast with coffee as they are as a mid-afternoon bite all on their own. Delicious and portable, a balance of nutrition with a bit of treat, multitasking has never been as appealing than this.

Endnote: I feel compelled to mention that Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday; in fact, this time of year is my absolute, preferred season. All of this is a wonderful sort of busy, and though I might wish for more hours in the day sometimes, I would not wish away a second of it.

APPLE CRANBERRY GRANOLA BARS

My version of a base recipe from Alton Brown. By adding the cashews at the end their salt does not get fully mixed into the bars, resulting in little pockets of salty goodness.

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 ounces old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 2 ounces wheat germ
  • 1 1/2 ounce flax seed
  • 2 ounces raw pumpkin seeds
  • 3 ounces sliced almonds
  • 1 1/2 ounces shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)
  • 4 ounces honey
  • 2 ounces golden syrup
  • 1 3/4 ounces light brown sugar (sometimes called yellow or golden)
  • 1 ounce unsalted butter, plus extra for pan
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 ounces dried apples, chopped
  • 2 1/2 ounces dried cranberries, chopped
  • 1 1/2 ounces salted cashews, roughly chopped

METHOD

Butter a 9 by 9-inch baking dish and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

Spread the oats, wheat germ, flax seed, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and coconut onto a baking sheet. Place in the oven and toast for 15 minutes, tossing to toast evenly.

Meanwhile, combine the honey, golden syrup, brown sugar, and butter in a large, microwave-safe bowl. Heat, on a low setting, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, stir in the salt and vanilla extract.

When the oat mixture is lightly toasted, remove it from the oven and reduce the heat to 300°F (150°C). Quickly add the oat mixture to the sugars, then the dried fruit and nuts, stirring to fully combine and coat. Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish.

Using the back of a greased spatula, press and flatten the mixture until evenly distributed. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, rotating once during baking. Remove from the oven to a rack and allow to cool completely. Turn out onto a cutting board and slice into desired squares or bars. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

Makes one 9x9 inch pan.

Notes:

  • I put a second baking dish of the same size on top of the bars as they come out of the oven, weighted down with cans. This extra compression makes for bars that will cut easily and hold their shape. For a crisp bar, allow the pan to completely cool before removing the weights. If you prefer a softer bar, you can do this for only part of the cooling time, or skip the step entirely.
  • In my mind, the perfect portion of these is achieved by cutting the pan into 2 1/4" squares. This yields 16 small bars.
  • Obviously, this is a recipe that can easily be tailored to suit personal preferences; as long as the general ratio of liquids to solids remains, sensible substitutions are easily made.