First off, let me just say that these are not your Grandma's date squares. Yes, hers may be perfectly lovely, but traditional date squares have a bad rap for being just a little bit boring. And these, my friends are far from boring. Funny little thing about date squares: out on the Canadian prairies, they are/were called matrimonial cake/squares. And I totally know why. Back in the day, date squares were packaged up, tied with ribbon in the couple's "colour" and given out as wedding favours. I can still remember my Aunty's wedding in 1982. My cousin and I were decked out in matching peach and white seersucker dresses (remember when we wore peach?) and my mom had also given me a Toni home perm and I thought I was coolest 9 year old around. Cousin Sheryl and I sat at the guest book signing table (huge responsibility!), which also came equipped with a basket of date squares, wrapped up in their glory; a gesture of gratitude from the happy couple. Well, that and an open bar. I don't know of any couples keeping up this tradition, but one taste of these bars and maybe matrimonial cake could make an appearance at a wedding near you soon. If someone else remembers eating matrimonial cake, I'd love to hear about it! If anyone else let their mom perm their hair, I'd love to hear about that, too.
These bars were really a happy accident. Initially I had plans to make some date pinwheel cookies, but long-story-short, the cookie dough was a bust. It wouldn't roll out properly and basically drove me bonkers. The filling was just standing by, waiting for a home, and then I thought A-HA! Let's fancify some date squares. See, sometimes I can be a total smarty pants.
What makes these bars so incredibly awesome is the dark chocolate and orange and just a little bit of butter added to the dates. The cook down and get all jammy, and even the person who dislikes dates would be hard pressed to sneer at these guys. The walnut base is quite fabulous as well - you'd never know there was whole wheat flour hanging out with the oats, butter, brown sugar and walnuts. Just pat most of the batter into a 9x13 pan. Spread on the date mixture, then crumble the remaining walnut mixture on top and bake for 25 minutes. Let cool and cut into squares. Ribbon tying, optional.
These bars are highly flavourful - the orange and chocolate bring out the best in the dates, and the walnut crumb has the perfect amount of richness. Admittedly, I've been eating these for breakfast, and not feeling guilty at all. Walnuts, dates, oats, whole wheat - it's all good stuff. That being said, these could totally hold their own against the short bread and caramel squares and gingerbread on your holiday goodie platter. They will surpass expectations and you'll have recipe requests in no time. Gotta love happy accidents.
Chocolate & Orange Date Squares with Walnut Crumb
2 cups pitted dates
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup Rogers Golden Syrup OR corn syrup
4 tbsp butter
zest of 1 orange
4 oz (130 grams) dark chocolate, chopped
1 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp coarse salt
3 cups large-flake oats
1 cup chopped walnuts
For the filling: combine the dates, water, syrup, butter and zest in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often until mixture is soft and jammy. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate until melted. Set aside.
In a mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and stir well. In a medium bowl, combine the flours, baking soda and salt and add to the butter mixture until combined. Slowly stir in the oats and nuts until well blended.
Preheat oven to 350*F and line a 9x13 pan with parchment. Press in two-thirds of the crumb mixture, using your hands. Spread the date mixture on top. Crumble the remaining crumb mixture on top of the dates and bake for 25 minutes. Cool and cut in to squares. Recipe for crumb mixture from High Plains, by Cinda Chavich.