My mom and dad were coming for supper on Sunday and for my mom, a meal just isn't a meal without something sweet at the end. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I'm not too shabby when it comes to cooking, but a baker, I am not. I don't know what it is: the precise measurements, the exact timing, one wrong turn on either count and the end product could be ruined - whatever it is, baking is NOT my thing. But, having said that, I do have a handful of baked goods that even I can't mess up! Enter....Date Squares!
When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, I had two food cravings: Chinese food and date squares. Every week day for my mid-morning snack, I would pop down to the snack bar in the lower level of the office building I was working in and have a date square and glass of cold milk. I loved them so much, I actually use to look forward to Monday mornings and God help them if they didn't have any....suffice to say, an unhappy pregnant woman, with her hormones all wanky and out of whack, can get a little cranky without her date square!
It just so happens that Date Squares remain as one of my favourite treats and, as luck would have it, they're also a favourite of my husband, father AND mother. Having decided that I was going to make a batch as that something sweet to end off our meal, I began to wonder about the history of Date Squares. Sadly, my research turned up very little as to the actual origin of Date Squares, but I did discover that they're commonly known as Matrimonial Cakes in Western Canada. There's no clear documentation explaining the reasoning behind that but it's believed that the smooth and rough textures represent the easy and difficult times in a marriage, layered on a sturdy foundation. They're also frequently available at weddings and sometimes, young women will take a date square, or matrimonial cake, wrap it up and place it under their pillow which is supposed to bring their intended husband to them.
Amidst my research on the origins of Date Squares, I discovered that dates are pretty phenomenal things in their own right! Dates are mentioned several times in the Bible but I came across an interesting little sidenote: In 1963, a cache of date palm seeds preserved in an ancient jar were discovered at Herod the Great's palalce on Masada, Italy, where, in 70 AD, a large group of Jewish families killed themselves rather than face capture by the Romans. In January 2005, the seeds were pretreated with fertilzer and hormone-rich soil and three of the seeds were subsequently planted. Eight weeks later, one of the seeds had sprouted and by the summer of 2010, the sapling stood at about 2 metres tall and was named 'Methuselah', after the longest-lived character in the Bible.
I then decided to do a little research on the health benefits of this resilient fruit. Quite frankly, I was pretty amzaed by all the goodness packed into these oddly wrinkled, brown and not particularly attractive, edible sweet fruit. Dates are a good source of various vitamins including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, Vitamin A and Vitamin K. They're also a good source of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, phosphorous, selenium, copper and potassium. Some of the main health benefits of dates are as follows:
The significant amounts of minerals, in particular calcium, selenium, copper, magnesium and potassium make it a superfood for strengthening bones and fighting off painful and debillitating diseases such as osteoporosis.
High levels of soluble fiber can relieve symptoms of constipation and dates are often classified as a laxative food.
Continuous intake of dates helps to inhibit the growth of pathogenic organisms in the intestines and also stimulates the growth of friendly bacteria.
Their impressive levels of iron make them a perfect dietary supplement for people suffering from anemia.
Dates contain organic sulfur which studies show reduces allergic reactions and seasonal allergies, particularly Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis.
Being high in natural sugars like glucose, fructose and sucrose, makes dates the perfect snack for an immediate energy boost. What's more, despite the high levels of natural sugars, dates actually have a low glycemic index. The May 28, 2011 issue of "Nutritional Journal' reported a study in which date consumption was tested on diabetics and the result was no significant increase in blood sugar levels after consumption of dates.
The potassium in dates is one of the prime ingredients in promoting a healthy and responsive nervous system and it also improves the speed and alertness of brain activity.
Dates have been proven to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol but they have even better resultts in lowering trigyceride levels thereby reducing the risk of artherosclerosis, heart attack and stroke.
Dates are beneficial in increasing sexual stamina, reducing sterility and the high levels of estradiol and flavonoid increase sperm count and motility. They're also a great natural aphrodisiac!
Ingesting dates has been shown to reduce the frequency of night blindness
Research has pointed toward dates as being a legitimate way to reduce the risk and impact of abdmoninal cancer.
Lastly, dates are commonly used as a remedy for alcohol intoxication and when consumed the morning after, can prevent severe 'hangovers'.
All of that sounded pretty darn good to me so I got right to making my Date Squares. First, I cut a pound and a half of dry pitted dates in half and placed them in a saucepan with 1/2 c. water and 1/8 c. sugar. (My original recipe calls for 1/4 c. sugar but I find dates pretty sweet on their own and if I can cut back on the added sugar without sacrificing taste, why not?). I heated the dates over medium heat just until they started to boil, then reduced the heat and let them simmer for about 5-10 minutes. I then removed them from the heat and let them cool while I prepared the crumble and base for my date squares.
In a large bowl, I creamed together 3/4 c. olive oil margarine and 1 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed. I then added 1 and 3/4 c. Robin Hood Nutri Blend flour with Omega 3's and fibre, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp baking soda. I stirred this mixture to combine before adding 1 and 1/2 c. of quick cooking oats, uncooked. Technically, you're suppose to mix all of the ingredients together until they form a crumble, but I toss the wooden spoon to one side and use my hands...not only is it easier but it's fun too!
From here, things get pretty darn easy. Simply press half of the crumble mixture into a lightly greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish.
Top with the cooled date mixture and spread evenly.
Top with the remaining crumble mixture and bake in a preheated 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes.
When the Date Squares are done, remove from the oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes before slicing into squares. You can cut them as big or as small as you want. I usually get about 24 Date Squares per pan.
I never can seem to wait until the squares are cooled completely before trying one....there's just something about a warm Date Square with a cold glass of milk that I'll never be able to resist! The creamy delicious date filling, perfectly sandwiched between a light crumbly top and crispy yummy bottom makes these Date Squares my number one favorite dessert treat.
With all of the health benefits of the dates, along with the omega 3 and fibre flour, olive oil margarine and of course, the well-known health benefits of the oats, (lowers cholesterol, unique oak antioxidants reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, enhance immune response, stabilize blood sugars, substantially lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, fiber protects against breast cancer), Date Squares are a guilt-free indulgence!
Theses Date Squares ticked all of my boxes: they couldn't have been easier to make, were jam packed with nutritional goodness, inexpensive and are a favourite of my husband, parents, children and me!
Whether your call 'em Matrimonial Cakes or Dates Squares, either way you slice 'em, they're easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!