Finally, a use for coconut sugar. Finally, a way to get Anker to concede that he likes dates.
I first discovered these as a kid in America. Like oatmeal-raisin cookies, they were vaguely healthy, humble, but still pretty spectacular. Years later, I realized they ticked all the boxes I think about as a mom: easy to make, packable, a good substitute for real food, and loved by all—including, most importantly, me and my son. They made their way into heavy rotation, but then dropped out when we wound up gluten-avoidant. (The recipe I had used called for both rolled oats and wheat flour.)
Recently, inspired by the fabulous book Real Sweet by Shauna Sever, I’ve made a point to re-discover these crunchy classics on the same virtue-meets-indulgence terms Sever lays out in her book. Admittedly, she doesn’t supply a recipe for date bars, but she does present a detailed review of alternative sweeteners. Armed with Sever’s insights and an internet connection, I managed to come up with a solid hypothesis, then experience led the rest of the way. Six bakes later, Anker and I have a new household favorite, and friends are asking me for the recipe at first bite.
Here it is, though I suspect it’s one that might keep evolving. For now, I’ve pared down the ingredients to a minimum. My advice for those unafraid of gluten? Swap half the oats for wheat flour—the texture will be even better. For the rest of you (a growing majority, it appears): the 100% oat version is really, really fine. It’s also indecently virtuous.
INGREDIENTS / FILLING
200g dates, any kind
pinch of salt
vanilla to taste (any kind)
salt flakes (optional)
INGREDIENTS / CRUST
200g rolled oats (2 cups)
quarter-teaspoon baking soda
100g coconut palm sugar (half-cup)
100g butter, in slices or chunks
To make the filling, combine dates, water, salt, and vanilla in a saucepan and simmer over low heat until pasty and smooth. Depending on the softness of the dates, you can leave them whole or chop them finely before adding to the pan. As for the vanilla, I like a 2-inch segment of bean, seeds scraped out and added to the simmering liquid, along with the empty pod (which gets fished out eventually). You can also use a fat pinch or several of dried vanilla seeds, or a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract. Simmer until soft, spreadable, and quite dry.
Preheat the oven to 175°C and place the rack near the oven floor. Grind the oats in a blender. You don’t need a powerful machine: a food processor or immersion blender is fine. Add the dry ingredients, reserving a tablespoon of the sugar. Mix thoroughly and combine with the butter, working the mixture into the consistency of wet sand. Set aside a third of this mixture and add your last tablespoon of sugar to the two-thirds in the bowl. Mix again and press evenly into the bottom of a parchment-lined 20cm square baking pan (mine is made of aluminum and it’s the same one I use for brownies and lemon bars). Now spread the date paste evenly over the crust, scattering some salt flakes on top if you like. Top with the reserved crust, spreading it evenly over the dates without packing it down. Bake for 35-45 minutes, depending on oven temperament. Cool completely before cutting into squares. Store in the refrigerator.
The crust is divided unevenly, but the layers will appear equal because the bottom is packed much more densely. The top and bottom should also brown and crunch evenly as a result of the low rack placement and the higher ratio of sugar in the bottom crust.
Getting a perfect bake on these is a bit tricky, because you want to take them all the way to the edge without burning them. Unlike brownies, blondies, shortbread, drop cookies, and many other baked treats, date bars don’t benefit one bit from being a smidge underbaked.
Be patient and let these cool or outright chill before you tear into them. The best part is their crunchy texture, which develops as the sugars in the crust crystallize.
Cinnamon in the crust seems like a no-brainer, but I like the way these are all about the vanilla. But don’t be shy, do your thing. Try nutmeg, too. Or swap figs or apricots for the dates. Try plum butter (powidła) or your favorite jam. Play with other kinds of flour (I’m planning to test-drive a half-teff version next). Use coconut oil. Add chopped nuts to the crust. You get the idea.
Consider date bars not just as a snack or dessert, but as a breakfast topping for bowls of oatmeal and millet. Just chop up into croutons and scatter away.