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Happily. Handily.

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.

Reader Comments (30)

Must get some dates immediately! Your description of how you came up with the recipe is so well written. I loved this as well! >> "golden bricks of marshmallow-and-butter-bathed cereal" :)

Hi Tara, and if you're reading, hi fifth-grade Tara. I, for one, will definitely give these date bars a chance. I've actually been on a little date kick recently, so these bars will fit right in. Happy 2010, friend!

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJess

I have a recipe for apricot bars that I cherish ... but these look amazing. Happy, Happy 2010!

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Gordon

Well yum, I may just need to make these for breakfast. I'm a date bar fan, but my new favourite way with these bars/squares is to fill them with mincemeat instead of the dates. I think after reading these I may revert to the date filling!

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjulie

I don't even like dates and I would give these a whirl based on your beautiful (as always) prose. How about Sun-In? I would like the 7th grade me to just say no to turning my dark brown hair an unnatural shade of red...

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDana

Yum yum! I used to make a recipe like this when I was little which I absolutely adored - the perfect combination of textures. I will definitely try this recipe!

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlissa @ Not Just Apples

Beautiful piece! Makes me want a date square (or bar, or matrimonial cake, if you're in the Canadian west). These were my father's favourite dessert, and we always seemed to have a pan around when I was a child, but I refused to try them. Silly me. Now I love them, and may have to make my own instead of buying them at a coffee shop or begging others to bake them for me.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary

I grew up eating a bar like this and have been unable to find a suitable recipe like what i was so familiar with as a child. This one appears to have great potential. I think a pan is in order for the cold weekend ahead.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Dates are great in sweet or savory dishes. I like the portability of your bars. Would like to pack some for a hike or snowshoe for that semi-sweet energy boost. Thanks!

ooo crumb-ish topping makes my knees week. Looks so good! PS. Im sure you'd look great with a crimp.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSara

Erika, so glad you liked that description. Rice Krispie Treats will always have a place in my heart.

Oh, me too on the date kick, Jess! I have been chopping them fine for my steel-cut oats in the morning, too.

Marc, that's the best description of dates, where were you yesterday when I was writing this up?

Megan, I'd love to hear about your apricot bars!

julie, there's oats and fruit and whole wheat flour and oh, nuts too - so that's a well-rounded breakfast I think. Mincemeat sounds a fine idea.

Dana, do you know I once tried Sun-In just because all of my friends were streaking their tresses golden? As you can imagine, it did nothing for me. And the scary thing was, I was disappointed. If dates aren't your thing, I am wondering if dried figs might be the ticket instead?

Alissa, please report back if you do!

Mary, I'd not heard the name Matrimonial Cake before; it sounds far more romantic than date squares! The recipe is truly simple and deeply gratifying.

Kate, please let us know how they turn out!

Anonymous, my sincere condolences for your loss. I hope that this recipe conveys the taste of your Grandmother's recipe, even if only a little.

Andrea, these bars are portable but I will emphasize that they're a bit crumbly! If you want a denser bar that would travel well, I would baking them in a 8-inch square pan might work to make them thicker and a bit sturdier.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertara

tara... what a delightful post!! yet again. u have a wonderful captivating style. keep at it.

January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

i love love love dates- i have some dates from saudi arabia: ajwa, khalas kharj and medjool. i cant eat them all as is (w clotted cream, delish) so shall try this recipe as well as a date cake recipe i got from my mum in law. i do like the idea of brown sugar and oats, but if your fam says keep the recipe as is- they must be right. wishing you a happy new year, shayma.

January 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershayma

I love a good crumbly bar, with the butter cut into it like crumble. So nostalgic for me too. Delicious.

January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAran

It's the opposite for me - date squares were a fixture of childhood: the item that appeared from my grandma's arsenal of treats most often. And, oh, how I loved them. How the toasty oats and sweet dates would just sing together. The way my gran would turn a blind eye when I picked all the best pieces of crumble off the top of the pan. Yours look just like hers out of the oven. Lovely.

January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

I was having a dull Monday morning until I read this endearing post. When you mention "gungy purée that squelched pleasingly" I simply smile. Your wordsmithing makes my day.

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenious

This is such a brilliantly written post . . . marshmallow-and-butter; dense, gungy puree; zest sparklers; crimped-hair warning; just heavenly. I liked it very much.

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermiss liss

Dates ohh my now Im heaven. I love mejdools dates as well. You know they sell the pressed ones also. This is one recipe I will definetly make. They sort of remind of mamoul, an arabic cake made from semolina and farina.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAysegul - nysdelight

Even dates that SQUELCH make up beautiful bars, as you've so gracefully proven to all of us.

These are gorgeous, as is your post. And it's making me crave date bars!

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLo

These were a favorite of my father. My great aunt used to make them for him, so we all grew up with date bars. Years later, I came upon a recipe for date and apricot bars. They were divine and he liked those too and I preferred them so that's what I made.
Your post brought back lots of happy memories!

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

Hmmm, and I was just wondering what to do with the dates leftover from my Christmas panforte. Perhaps they have Date Squares written all over them! Thanks, Molly

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hands-down my favourite sweet-treat.

January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJason

I read this entry when you posted it, then skimmed the recipe. I just now noticed that you mentioned my walnut allergy! it made me smile. :)

January 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhannah | honey & jam

I am a French Canadian living in the USA and date squares - which are one of my favorites - are unknown here. I am looking forward to try this recipe!

January 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSophie

I believe 1 1/2 sticks of butter is 6 ounces and not 10. 10 ounces is 2 1/2 sticks which would be a LOT of butter for this recipe. I used only one stick (4 ounces) and 3/4 C of sugar. It's in the oven right now but I'm sure it's going to turn out great!

February 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCallie Koch

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