A few weeks ago when we were looking for date bar recipes, we discovered that there were two varieties of date bars. One, the kind offered up a couple weeks ago, features an oatmeal, flour, butter and sugar crust like we use for making fruit crisps. The other calls for a cake-like batter. In fact, one of you shared a recipe that called for a cake mix, a speedy way to knock together the bars.
Elizabeth Thurston sent along a recipe for made-from-scratch, batter-style bars called Mrs. Armstrong’s Date Bars, which I decided to try. I admit to a preference for baking from scratch.
As a friend of mine said to me once, “You like to do things the hard way.”
It’s not exactly hard to make a cake batter, though admittedly it needs a few more steps. Made with brown sugar and butter, filled with gooey, lemony, date filling, well, it just sounded delicious.
The recipe produces a very stiff batter. When the directions say, “spread as much as possible,” that’s a great big hint that you can just shove it around and not fret if it doesn’t smooth out the way you might think it would, especially the top layer where we are told to drop blobs of batter and spread them. As you might imagine, the stiff batter kind of slides around on the top of the date filling, and looks a mess. If you have one, use an offset spatula which helps considerably.
In baking though, the batter swells up and produces a lovely top.
In working with dates, and hearing from you about your date experiences, I realize that some dates are moister and stickier than others. The dates I used this time were pretty dry, which I soaked in water a little while, then used that water as part of the required one cup full to cook them in. If your dates are pretty plump and moist, you might be able to scant the water somewhat.
I don’t have an 11-by-17-inch sheet pan. So I used an 11.5-by-14-inch one, instead, so my bars are probably a little thicker than they ought to be. I lined my pan with parchment paper because I love having baked things that don’t stick to pans.
A brief note about sour milk. When I see recipes calling for sour milk, I often think that the recipe is an older one. When people routinely acquired unpasteurized milk, as people did a hundred years ago, or used milk from their own cow, it soured up but remained useful for cooking. Adding baking soda meant that the acidic milk and the alkaline baking soda combined to provide the bubbly gas needed to raise the cake. Old pancake recipes, cakes, and other baked goods often called for sour milk. These days a little vinegar dropped into milk from the carton acidifies the milk enough to produce the needed rising. I put about a teaspoon in the half-cup of milk called for.
These cut into neat bars, can be eaten out of hand, or with a fork. I bet a date bar topped with vanilla ice cream would be lovely.
Mrs. Armstrong’s Date Bars
Yields 24 2-by-2-inch bars
2 cups dates, chopped
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1½ teaspoons vanilla
Zest of one lemon
¼ cup flour
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup milk, soured with 1 teaspoon vinegar
3½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Prepare the filling first. Put all the ingredients except the flour into a saucepan, and cook over a moderate heat until it thickens.
Sift in a little flour if the mixture looks thin. It needs to be spreadable.
Set aside to cool until you assemble the bars
Heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease an 11-by-17-inch sheet pan.
Cream together the butter and sugar.
Add eggs one at a time, beating after each.
Add milk and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, whisk together dry ingredients, then add to batter and mix. The batter will be quite stiff.
Spread half of the batter onto the sheet pan. Layer on date mixture as evenly as possible.
Dot with remaining batter and spread out as much as possible.
Bake for 20 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.