Let’s begin with a quote from the illustrious Ms. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen:
“Prior to last month, I had spent exactly zero minutes of my life thinking about date cake, craving date cake or noting the absence of date cake in my life and/or site archives.”
This precisely sums up my feelings about baked goods made with dates; except for a couple of sexy brushes with sticky toffee pudding, they have sort of been a non-factor up until now.
I was highly wary of these Date Squares from Baked Occasions on the Baked Sunday Mornings schedule for this week. Really? …dates? People eat these little creepy things that look like caterpillar cocoons? In truth, I don’t know much about them, though I was born in Israel, which lies in the general vicinity of their region of origin. But in the name of personal growth (and because Deb Perelman convinced me that they are awesome), I decided to have an open mind.
What are dates exactly? I had a vague understanding of them as a fruit, but as I had not spent much time thinking about them before making these bars, I hadn’t bothered to learn more. Dates are stone-fruits that come from the date palm tree, then dried. They are naturally high in sugar and therefore play nice in baked goods. There are several varieties, and I used the common medjool dates for this recipe. You can generally locate them in the produce section of the supermarket. (Pitting the dates is just gross… I’m going to leave it at that.)
The first step is making the gooey date filling by cooking the chopped dates with brown sugar and water until they soften and absorb most of the liquid.
While the date mixture cools, make the oat crust. You’ll stir together flour, baking soda, and salt, then add the quick-cooking oats. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy and beat in the dry ingredients until the mixture is crumbly. The crust crumbs are light and soft, sort of like wet sand, but fluffy.
Press half of the crumbs firmly onto the bottom of your cake pan. It is very easy to work with, except you have to be careful in spreading the filling over the crust because it will pick up the crumbs if you move it around too much. After the filling is spread to the edges, scatter the rest of the crumbs on top and press them lightly into the dates in an even layer.
The bars baked up golden in precisely 30 minutes. The dates smelled pretty unappetizing after being cooked with brown sugar, but after baking they were transformed into sticky, gooey goodness, and the kitchen smelled so buttery!
I was so curious to try these intriguing date squares, and they did not disappoint. The oat crust and dates go really well together, with a nice balance of sweetness and nutty butter. When I first tasted them, I thought they were nice (better than expected), but not something I’d probably make again. I felt like they needed something– in the back of my mind I had contemplated a butterscotch or toffee sauce, like the aforementioned sticky toffee pudding… and that’s where Smitten Kitchen came in. She had coincidentally posted her Warm Date Cake with Toffee Sauce (Sticky Toffee Pudding) a few weeks before, and that sauce seemed perfectly suited here.
To make this simple sauce, melt the butter on low heat, and add the cream and dark brown sugar. Turn up the heat to medium. Stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar crystals dissolve and the mixture comes to a simmer. Switch to a whisk and continue stirring for about 10 minutes. The toffee will be pretty thin, but will thicken slightly towards the end. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Transfer to a heatproof vessel to cool and thicken a bit.
THEN… I poured the toffee sauce over the Date Squares and my life changed. Guys, OHMYGOD. There is a reason that sticky toffee pudding is a classic dessert– the toffee elevates the dates to ecstatic heights, truly. The flavors and textures meld so beautifully; I literally (really) moaned when I tasted them together. I much prefer this as a plated dessert, where it is more elegant and so very delicious with the sauce (plus the bars are crumbly and fragile, thus hard to eat out-of-hand). It is quite sweet, but not in a cloying way. Wow, this dish really blew me away!
I didn’t think I would make this recipe again, but I fell in love with these bars– they completely changed my mind about what I perceived dates to be. They are a wonderful choice for a holiday dessert, particularly dressed up with that divine toffee sauce. Find the recipe for Date Squares at Baked Sunday Mornings, and see how my baking homies liked these too! 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.