This one, oh lordy, this one took me some time to figure out. Growing up, our neighbor across the street would bring a platter of treats over every Christmas. Lemon tarts, apricots date bars and pecan turtles. It was the same every year, simple and in vast contrast to our reciprocal platter that was decorated to the hilt with sprinkles, jimmies, colored sugars, icings and an ungodly amount of little silver balls that probably gave us all mercury poisoning. As kids, our decorating styles leaned heavily into gaudy. Festive but certainly gaudy.
The lemon tarts were passed over for the caramel-y turtles but my favorites were always the apricot date bars. A soft, not too sweet apricot date filling was sandwiched between a crumbly lightly spiced brown sugar oatmeal crust. They weren’t the prettiest things, often looking like they’d been run over by a truck, and left a trail of crumbs in the wake of anyone who tried to sneak a bite but they were delicious.
I’ve tried to haphazardly recreate them ever few months, usually when the annual tin of dates arrives from friends around the holidays. I’m not sure a two-pound tin of re-gifted dates can be considered a blessing but all the same, it cries to be used and usually spurs this recipe. I’ve tried probably a dozen versions but food memories are strong; highly flawed but strong. Each one was off in some way: not enough apricot, not enough date, too crumbly, too hard, wrong spice flavor. Everything was just wrong. Sure I thought about asking Mrs. Brown for the recipe but had been turned down several times over the years and came to the conclusion it would be easier to just figure it out myself. Sure. Easier.
So here I am years later and with two tins of dates (my friends are stockpiling me). So lets give it another go. I dug up the working recipe file and threw it out. Time to start from scratch, with a clean slate. I chopped the apricots and simmered in more water than I thought I’d need until tender, then I threw in a slightly higher ratio of dates, simply torn in half. The mixture was still a bit watery but I had faith. Another 15 minute simmer and it was perfect: soft, tender, melting but yet with just a little texture. A shot of vanilla and I had a soft, tender and melting filling with great flavor. Good! Now to address that crust.
The crust had been giving me fits. It’s a basic crumble recipe; what could be so hard? You would be surprised. The original bars had a very loose, almost dusty crumble, rich with butter and brown sugar. I like the flavor but wanted to tighten it a bit. A lifetime of getting yelled at for leaving crumbs around the house may have spurred that decision. I started with my basic crumble recipe and took it from there. The base was flour, oats and dark brown sugar to bring out the deep caramel flavors. I added some spices for flavor – cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice – then smooshed it together with butter into big delicious crumbles.
Half was pressed firmly into the pan, topped with the apricot date mixture, then the other half of the topping crumbled and lightly pressed on top. Into the oven and voila! A pretty damn close approximation of the apricot date bars of my youth. My memories may be sketchy but I think I like these better. Ssshhhhhh .. don’t tell Mrs. Brown.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: HOME SWEET HOME. These bars conjure up happy childhood memories or trading cookie plates with the neighbors, eager to see what was on this years offering. It was always the same three things but not that it matters. As long as those apricot date bars where there, I was happy. I’ve also recently learned that quite a few of my friends receive a tin of dates from their financial planners around the holidays. This is curious. And what happens to these tins of dates is that they end up in my house by recipients who think they neither like dates nor have any desire to do anything with them. Because of this, I am the recipient of quite a few dates at certain times of the year which can be both a blessing and a curse. When you bake, your friends seem to think you can use their extra stuff.
Seven years ago: Chino Farms Strawberries
Six years ago: Rhubarb Custard Pie
Five years ago: Late Spring Pea Soup
Four years ago: Pear Frangipane Tarts
Three years ago: Morel Hunting
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Parmesan Pea Dip
APRICOT DATE BARS
Makes one 8”x8” pan, about 16 1” bars
for the filling:
2 ½ cups water
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup dried California apricots, roughly chopped (8 ounces)
1 ¼ cups pitted dated, torn in half (8 ounces)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the oat crumble:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
12 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut in ½” chunks
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line an 8”x8” baking pan with a criss-cross of foil and spray lightly with cooking spray.
- For the filling: Bring water, salt and chopped apricots to a boil in medium saucepan.
- Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until plumped and soft, 15 minutes.
- Add the dates and continue to simmer until the fruit begins to break down, another 20 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the vanilla and cover. Let sit while you make the crumble.
- For the oat crumble: Combine the flour, brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, baking soda, and salt in large bowl.
- Add the butter and work in with your fingertips, until moist clumps form.
- Press half of oat mixture evenly over bottom of prepared pan.
- Spread cooled apricot-date mixture on top.
- Crumble the remaining oat mixture on top, pressing gently to adhere.
- Bake until brown at edges and golden brown and set in center, about 40 minutes.
- Cool completely in pan on rack. Cut into bars and serve. Note: bars will cut much easier if the pan is chilled or even frozen first.