These date bars aren't dated
Not long ago, I received an email from a reader asking me if I had an excellent recipe for date bars. It had been ages since I'd thought of those classic sweet treats with a cookie-like mixture sandwiching soft, creamy date filling. I hadn't even noticed that date bars seem to have gone out of fashion.
My dad loved oat-laden, crumbly-crusted date bars. Unfortunately, my mom never developed a liking for the rich treat. The recipe my grandmother used to create the dessert that made her son happy stayed tucked into my mom's recipe file, never to see the light of day. Every once in a while, though, my mom would bring a box of Betty Crocker Date Bar Mix home from the grocery store. Maybe beloved Betty had something to do with the demise of date bars. Her date bar mix is no longer available in stores.
On our trips to visit relatives in Indiana, we always made a stop at my dad's cousin's house. She'd have a plate of date bars waiting for my dad. Her bars were not made from a mix - she used the family recipe.
I inherited my dad's love of the fruit referred to as "nature's candy." I stir chopped dates into bran muffins rather than using the standard add-in, raisins. I've been known to pop a couple of pitted dates into my mouth as an exotic mid-afternoon snack. They satisfy my sweet tooth. For years, my car automatically steered off I-94 at the Rothsay exit. A truck stop there served my favorite date-filled cookies. I'd buy a bag of them to eat in the car. The last time I stopped there, I discovered those cookies are no longer available, either. Out of fashion maybe?
Dates have been esteemed in Middle Eastern cultures for thousands of years. In California, where most of the dates in the United States are grown, the firm-fleshed fruit that demands lots of hot sunshine develops in clusters on date palm trees. Most common is the Deglet Noor, the kind you are most likely to find in the grocery store. The much larger and plump Medjool dates are also grown in California and if you are lucky, you will find some in the produce department in your grocery store.
Dates may be small, but they are a package of protein, fiber, minerals, antioxidants and vitamins. They are a low-fat snack with a high level of natural sugar.
The request for a date bar recipe sent me right to my file where I sorted through all kinds of directions for bars and cookies. I couldn't find my grandmother's recipe. Next stop was her tattered ledger filled with her hand-written recipes. And, there it was.
Her original recipe calls for shortening. I used butter. And I doubled the date filling.
With their natural sweetness, dates can be cooked with water until they reach a consistency similar to marmalade. When the mixture is cool, an addition of freshly-squeezed orange juice creates a delightful caramely filling.
The cookie-like mixture that envelopes jammy date filling is sweetened with brown sugar and gets texture from quick-cooking oats. Just out of the oven, the not-too-sweet bars get a sprinkling of ground toasted nuts. These Date Bars are easier to cut when they are cooled to room temperature. I couldn't resist using my heart-shaped cookie cutter.
Grandmother's Date Bars turn an exotic delicacy into a comfortable, satisfying, fashion-worthy dessert.
Grandmother's Date Bars
1 pound pitted dates, chopped
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups quick-cooking oats
1/2 cup ground toasted pecans or walnuts
Put dates and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is the consistency of marmalade, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Allow to cool. Stir in orange juice.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter the bottom of a 9- x 13-inch metal pan. Line the pan with parchment paper, using enough to have some paper come up and over the sides. Lightly butter the parchment that lines the bottom of the pan. Set aside.
Sift flour, baking soda and salt together into a large mixing bowl. Use your clean fingers to mix in the brown sugar. Cut butter into chunks and add to bowl. Once again, use your fingers to work the butter into the dry ingredients until you create a crumbly consistency. Add oats and mix.
Firmly pat 3 cups of the cookie mixture into the prepared pan. Spoon date filling on the cookie layer and spread evenly. Sprinkle remaining cookie mixture over the filling. Bake for 30 minutes in preheated 325-degree oven. Remove from oven. Sprinkle hot bars with ground nuts. Allow bars to cool in pan. Carefully pull the cooled bars out of the pan, using the excess parchment paper as handles. Cut into 20 to 24 bars.
Tips from the cook
--To toast walnuts or pecans, arrange in a single layer on a baking pan. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 8 minutes, or until they are golden and fragrant. Remove from oven and immediately transfer nuts to a plate to cool.
-- The one pound of dates called for in this recipe is the weight of dates after they have had pits removed.