In the 1965 film, "The Flight of the Phoenix", a single-engine aircraft (piloted by Jimmy Stewart) crashes in the Sahara desert. One of the surviving passengers asks what they're going to do for food (a man after my own heart). The character played by Peter Finch replies, "As far as food is concerned, we seem to be singularly fortunate. There appears to be an almost unlimited supply of pressed dates on board." I love dates, so I figure I would have managed just fine with those guys - providing I had an ample supply of SPF 50 sunscreen, plenty of moisturizer, and a several cases of Fiji water. I love that film (I own it) so when I know I'm going to watch it, I get a small bag of Medjools to much on - or bake some date bars - just to get into the spirit of things.
Nutritionally speaking, dates are high in iron and potassium and contain modest amounts of folate and a small amount of vitamin A, and the B vitamins. Dates have been a staple food of the Middle East for millennia. In fact, some evidence points to their having been cultivated for more than 6,000 years! There are at least 40 varities of dates, generally divided into soft, semisoft, and dry. Medjools are in the semisoft category. Dates grow in the Middle East, North Africa, Southern California, and Arizona. Suffice to say, along with olives, grapes, honey, and wheat, dates are one of our oldest foods.
Date bars are remarkably easy to make and are a real comfort food. Please use Medjool dates for this recipe. They are plump, sweet, and soft - and far more delicious than the familiar dates in a box (which can be hard and sugary). I find Medjools in the bulk foods section at Whole Foods. Ask to sample one before you buy to make sure they are soft. Medjools are quite wrinkled and sometimes have a thin white film of sugar on the surface, which is fine. The dates are sold with the pits, so you'll have to remove them. It's a sticky chore but it doesn't take long to do. Medjools can also be ordered from Oasis Date Gardens (see link). This recipe makes a big batch - plenty to share.
3 cups Medjool dates, pitted (buy about 1-1/4 pounds)
1-1/2 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pure orange extract (optional)
OATMEAL CRUMB MIXTURE
2-1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 light brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, divided into 4 pieces and softened
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 13"x 9" pan and set aside.
In a heavy, medium-sized saucepan, combine the dates, water and sugar. Bring to a boil over moderate heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened and jamlike, about 10-12 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the optional orange extract and cool for about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, stir the oats, flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt together. Add the butter and crumble with your fingers until blended. Press half of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan. Spread with the filling. Top with the remaining crumb mixture and press lightly. Bake 25 to 30 minutes until light brown. Cool on a wire rack for ten minutes and cut into bars or squares while still warm. The bars may be stored in an airtight container for 2 days, in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for 1 month. Makes 24 or 36 bars, depending on size.