Vintage Cooking — Third Time’s the Charm Date Bars

My second attempt at cooking from Great Aunt Lillian’s cook book proved to be a daunting and time consuming experience. The cupcakes were so easy so I thought date bars would be a breeze. Boy was I wrong! Two weeks later (my work got so in the way!) and with three attempts under my belt I now have a successful Date Bar recipe experience to share with you. Here’s some of the issues I faced in finding the solution to Great Aunt Lillian’s Date Bars.

Problem number one: Finding a vintage recipe to help me

Hand-Written Recipe Next to Modern Notes

Hand-Written Recipe Next to Modern Notes

Great Aunt Lillian used a wood stove up until she died in 1945 so her recipes do not include oven temperatures, times, or directions. Just the ingredients and amounts. So, for me to replicate them in my modern electric stove I need to find a similar vintage recipe that helps me figure out what to do. I search cookbooks and on line for recipes from c. 1901, when Great Aunt Lillian married Great Uncle Charles, up to her death in 1945. Here’s how Lillian’s recipe looks in her hand written cook book:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 level teaspoon soda
  • 1/3 cup butter

____________________ Filling

  • 3/4 lb dates
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • juice of one lemon or orange

 

Cooking the Dates

Cooking the Dates

The recipes I found for Date Bars in early 20th century cook books I own mixed the dates into the flour and did not have this “filling” which implied a layer of batter, a filling of dates, followed by a top layer of batter. I looked on line and the closest thing I could find was a modern recipe and video on how to make them on the website, Taste of Home, for date squares.

I emailed Lynne Olver of the Food Timeline and asked if she could help me find any vintage recipes using this layering technique. She graciously sent me two samples. These recipes came from a Better Homes and Garden cook book dated 1953 and a Woman’s Home Companion cook book dated 1942.

With all of these recipes as a guide I cooked my first attempt. I began by making the filling. All went well. I measured out the dates using my scale and cooked them for five minutes into this nice gooey filling. I set it aside and then made the dough. The dough seemed a bit dry, really just crumbs that don’t hold together, which worried me. I patted half of them in a buttered pan, spread the filling in and then topped it with

The Date Bars Before Being Baked

The Date Bars Before Being Baked

the rest of the dough. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the whole process. All the recipes called for baking the bars at 350. How long to cook the bars varied from 20 minutes to 35 minutes. I tried 25 and took the Bars out not knowing if its lack of firmness to the touch was just because it was warm. I hoped it would firm up with cooling.

Uh, no, it did not firm up with cooling and remained a gooey sticky mess. Yuck. Obviously undercooked.

I vowed to try again. But rather than wait until I had enough dates, I got anxious and decided I would try two things different. First, I would mix dates with raisins since I didn’t have enough dates. And second, I would follow a different recipe for the filling that produced less filling. There seemed to be a lot of filling in Aunt Lillian’s recipe.

Problem Number 2: Do Not Deviate from the Recipe!

The Date Bar. Yuck!

The Date Bar. Yuck!

What a disaster! I never made it very far that night. I just made the filling and stopped. Raisins just don’t seem to have the same consistency as dates when cooked with sugar and water on the stove. They never broke down much with the heating and never made the nice gooey thick filling that the dates did the first time I followed Aunt Lillian’s recipe. So, lesson learned. No substitutes smarty pants!

Round Three – Success, But……

Yep, I tried again. I carefully measured, weighed, sighed, prayed, and did everything I could to make successful Date Bars. I even let them cook 15 minutes longer and yes, they are better than before. They were still pretty gooey until they cooled. The taste – well they are VERY sweet! Too sweet really for our modern tastes. I’m glad I finally succeeded, but Date Bars will not be on my list to make again. However, if you’d like to try and see for yourself here is my recipe: First, take the butter out and let it soften well ahead of time! It will make your life easier! To make the filling:

  • 2 1/2 c. dates
  • 1/3 c. white sugar
  • 1. c water
  • juice of a lemon

Put all into a pan over medium heat. Bring to a low boil and let simmer for five minutes stirring constantly to thicken. Take off the heat. To make the dough:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 level teaspoon soda
  • 5 1/3 tablespoons butter (which is the same as 1/3 cup butter)

Mix the dry ingredients. Using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until you have mixed it well. Butter a long thin pan. Pat half the dough into the bottom, spread the date mixture on top and then sprinkle the remaining dough on top. Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 40 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. I’m looking forward to my next venture from Lillian’s cook book – Cabbage and Cheese Scallop, since the Farmers Market has lots of fresh cabbage! While there will be no fear of too much sugar for this recipe, there is the frightening 4 tablespoons of fat in the recipe……oh my!

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