There is a pretty little New England town near Hartford, Connecticut, population 9973, where I want to live. It’s called Stars Hollow and it’s home to mother-and-daughter duo Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and a madcap parade of townsfolk. Otherwise known as the cast of Gilmore Girls. Unfortunately for me and many others who would give their left arm to reside there, Stars Hollow ain’t real.
I have a fascination with all New England towns, whether real or imagined. Where this fascination came from, I don’t know. I can only assume it’s because I haven’t been to very many of them and I always want what I can’t have. I mean, English villages are even more beautiful and certainly more historic, but I can go to one of those whenever I want, thus negating the fantasy factor. (Unfortunately Ontario towns tend to be either terribly twee or rather scraggly and full of pick up trucks and hockey haircuts.)
Because I can’t live there, I thought I would indulge my Stars Hollow fantasy with some date squares. I don’t think there’s anything particularly New England about date squares, but in my fantasy they’re exactly the sort of thing that kids pick up from the local bakery after school. Then they go home and sit on a swing on their large verandah, savouring the treat and watching the Stars and Stripes float in the gentle breeze (because every house is flying the flag, right?). Then they settle down to their homework with a glass of milk.
Come on, there must be some truth to this. In her book Simple Vegetarian Pleasures Jeanne Lemlin writes that her own version of date squares is based on the kind she used to buy as a treat when she was growing up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I have no idea what New Bedford is like, but for the sake of fantasy we’ll assume it’s a real life Stars Hollow.
I based my version of date squares on two recipes – Jeanne Lemlin’s Date Crumb Squares and the delectable date nut bars served at Bridgehead Coffee in Ottawa. Incidentally, I don’t think there was a bakery in Stars Hollow, was there? That town is in dire need of date squares. Looks like there’s an opening for another citizen!
(Edited to say thanks to Ele for letting me know that there WAS a bakery, owned by the old lady who owned the inn before Lorelai and Sookie. But since she died, I guess the bakery needs a new owner. So I’m still in.)
Date Pecan Squares
2 cups pitted dates
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup water
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest and juice of half a lemon (optional)
1 1/2 cups plain/all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
12 tablespoons / 6 oz / 170 g butter
Preheat the oven to 350F / 176C. Grease and flour a 9×13 inch baking pan.
To make the filling, first toast the pecans in a heavy-bottomed skillet on low heat until fragrant and starting to turn brown. Do not let them burn! Chop nuts and set aside. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook 1 minute until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture cool, then puree with a food processor or hand blender. Add pecans.
Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar and baking soda in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, and stir to combine. Cut the butter into small pieces and add it to the mixture. Either rubbing with your fingers or using the mixer’s paddle attachment, combine the ingredients until even crumbs form and a clump of crust comes together gently when squeezed.
Pour half the contents into the baking dish and gently press it down until even. Spoon the date mixture on top. This can be tricky as the sticky, thick mixture can pull up bits of crust. I find that using firm strokes with a spatula and pressing down while you spread is the best way to ensure an even coating of date mixture with no bits of crust peeking through. Spread the other half of the crust mixture on top and pat down very gently. Bake around 30 minutes, until golden.