Not long ago, I received an email request for a date bar recipe. My thoughts swiftly went back to the date bars my dad’s cousin used to make using a recipe that had been in my dad’s family for years — maybe generations. Following the visions of date bars running through my head came the date-filled cookies I used to get from the Rothsay Truck Stop. On my trips from Fargo to Minneapolis, I could never pass up the I-94 exit that took my car up the ramp and right into a parking spot in front of the large plate glass window that looked into the little cafe attached to the gas station. I’d walk up to the counter lined with bar stools and order half dozen of the homemade date-filled cookies. A waitress would pull the large, soft cookies from a glass jar on a shelf and slide them into a paper bag. Chewy and not too sweet, they were a date-lovers dream. They were an easy snack to eat out of hand in the car. The truck-stop cafe is still there. The date-filled cookies are not.
My date-filled daydream came to an abrupt end when I realized date bars seem to have fallen out of fashion. Even Betty Crocker’s Date Bar Mix, something my mom used to bring home from the grocery store in the 1960s, has disappeared. And, when was the last time you saw date bars in the bakery case?
Date bars are gone. They’ve simply vanished and we didn’t even notice.
I’m bringing them back right now. I found my grandmother’s recipe in her tattered ledger filled with her beautiful, scrolling handwriting. That recipe appears in my column this week. They have less butter and sugar than many date bar recipes use. They’re way too crumbly to eat in the car without making a mess on the seat. But, they are good.
This makeover recipe replaces all-purpose flour with Natural Way Mills organic white whole wheat flour. This flour is similar in texture to white all-purpose flour, but it contains the germ and most of the nutrients of whole wheat flour and has a creamy color. The flavor is much lighter than the pronounced nutty flavor of whole wheat flour.
I replaced butter with earth balance organic coconut spread. It was the first time I used the spread for baking. It left just a slight hint of coconut, which is a natural flavor partner for dates.
I think my grandmother might disapprove if she knew I was playing around with an old family recipe. She’d be disappointed to know I prefer these bars over those made by generations of bakers in her family. But, change can be good — especially when it brings crunchy texture and delicious flavor while producing a date bar that is a little more healthful than the original.
This new recipe, the 2.0 version of the original date bar, might just bring back the date bar.
- 1 pound pitted dates, chopped
- 1½ cups water
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
- 1½ cups white whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ½ cup organic coconut spread, room temperature
- 1 1/3 cups quick-cooking oats
- ½ 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 grease the bottom of a 9- x 13-inch metal pan with coconut spread. Line the pan with parchment paper, using enough to have some paper come up and over the sides. Lightly grease the parchment that lines the bottom of the pan. Set aside.
Mix flour, baking soda and salt together into a large mixing bowl. Use your clean fingers to mix in the brown sugar. Add chunks of coconut spread to bowl. Once again, use your fingers to work the coconut spread 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.
- Find white whole wheat flour in all well-stocked grocery stores.
- I found earth balance organic coconut spread in the refrigerated case with other non-dairy spreads.