Growing up in New York I always assumed everyone I saw on the streets grew up here too. When I learned that the majority of grown-ups had moved to my city from other places I was completely surprised. That kind of myopia informs a lot of New Yorkers. There’s the swagger that comes from living in “the city that never sleeps,” believing we’re at the center of the universe. But that thinking is also a small mindedness. Living in the same place for an entire lifetime, even the biggest city in the world, is in many ways as provincial as spending your life in Small Town, USA. It’s important to remember it takes more than a Big Apple to make a fruit salad.
A few weeks ago I was reminded of my limited appreciation of the rest of the country when the Times ran a piece on the publication of The Sunset Cookbook: a compendium of recipes from the 102 year old Sunset magazine, a fixture in America’s western living rooms. I remember seeing the magazine fanned out on someone’s coffee table although I can’t think of whose. Maybe an aunt or uncle in California? Or am I conflating it with Highlights for Children at my dentist’s office? Anyway, I know I’ve seen it and have always been curious about it.
One of the things that surprised me the most about the article was just how long western food has had its own character—again, a completely New York or eastern point of view. Among other things, the climate and demographic are totally different and specific so why should I be surprised? Did you know that in 1922 the magazine published a recipe for enchiladas? Although it makes complete sense that Mexican flavors would impact the cuisine of border states I don’t think I realized they had infiltrated the mainstream back when women bobbed their hair and New Yorkers were suffering through jellied consommés.
From their all-access pass to fresh, local produce you actually want to eat (as opposed to easterners who pretend we are really excited to eat a rutabaga in December. Who are we kidding? We want edible tomatoes year-round please!) to the absorption of Mexican and Vietnamese flavors in everyday cooking, it doesn’t take Alice Waters to teach us that Californians are lucky. All this talk is making me crave guacamole so I need to move on to the sweeter things.
One of the recipes that accompanied this article was for a “Date Shake.” No, not a two-strawed milk shake you sip while on a date with your sweetie at the malt shop but a frosty smoothie-esque drink made from vanilla ice cream and dates. I was intrigued. One, because I love the soothing simplicity of vanilla ice cream and two, I’ve never had a date…of the Medjool variety.
And then the weirdest thing happened. I went grocery shopping at Fairway and all I saw were dates. They were everywhere: dates on stems outside, dates with pits in plastic containers piled near the door, cardboard boxes of pitted dates stacked under the apples, and jumbo dates ready to be scooped in the bulk section. This was a sign from the date god. Scooping the bulk dates into my baggie I remembered seeing way too many customers sticking their hands into the open bin. I didn’t want my first date with dates to be marred by food poisoning so I abandoned the scoop, grabbed a hygienically sealed container and started making plans.
First step was the shake. I chopped up the four dates (I am so tempted to make a snide remark), added the milk and got the blender whirring. Okay, small problem. The dates were so sticky they literally gummed up the works; a lot of noise but not a lot of action. Loosening them from the blades of the blender required much manipulation with my spatula and the end result was a somewhat creepy looking tan drink speckled with dark brown date skin. But the taste? Delicious. Imagine a vanilla milk shake heightened with a just a hint of a deeper, toffee flavor. (Click here for recipe) I’m not used to flakes of fruit skin in my beverages so the texture took a little getting used to but it was totally worth it. Although there was no way I could finish the whole thing. Give it a try but split it with someone. You can split your date shake with your date!
Meanwhile, I still had ¾ of a box of dates left and, given my slight lactose intolerance, was not looking to blend any additional ice cream concoctions. So, a little surfing on epicurious and I came upon “Classic Date Bars.” Wait a minute, I’ve never even heard of a date bar and they're considered a “classic?” What is going on here? As my mother would say upon hearing a piece of celebrity gossip a week after the rest of the world, “why was I not told?” And speaking of mothers, the recipe had tons of reviews from readers all over the country waxing on about how the bars reminded them of baking with their moms or how they’d just made them with their daughters and were brought back to their memories of their youth. Was this an example of my deprived childhood? All the other little girls had mothers who were busy making date bars with them while mine refused to even consider baking anything that didn’t revolve around chocolate?
Obviously I had to make this supposed classic if I wanted to continue to call myself a baker. They are super easy, nutty and toasty, both soft and chewy, with a nice contrast between the hint of cinnamon in the crumbly crust and the sweet, sticky fruity center. And then I noticed something in the online reviews; of the 54 comments only two were from New York, and both had tweaked the recipe so much they clearly had no nostalgic attachment to this supposedly ubiquitous treat. So maybe this was a regional thing. Maybe I did need to look outside of New York to open my eyes to the rest of the country and, for once, a good date.
My First Date with Date Bars adapted from Bon Appétit, February 2004
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1 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/2 cups chopped pitted dates
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, diced, room temperature
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 8x8-inch metal baking pan. Bring water and orange juice to simmer in medium saucepan. Add dates;
simmer until very soft and thick, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Stir in vanilla.
Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in food processor and pulse to mix. Add butter and pulse until moist clumps form.
Add oatmeal and pulse on and off until oats are evenly incorporated. Press half of oat mixture evenly over bottom of prepared pan.
Spread date mixture over oat mixture. Sprinkle with remaining oat mixture and chopped walnuts if using, 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 2"x2" squares.
Yield: 16 squares