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date and nut oat bars

November 5th, 2012 | 3 Comments »

I’m a total rebel.

It’s November, and everywhere you look is pumpkin. In everything. Or butternut squash. In everything. There’s sweet potatoes lurking over there; an acorn squash holding an adorable filling, perfectly browned edge glinting just so. It’s the season for all things roots and orange.

People are already gearing up for Thanksgiving, too. Decorations for Christmas have come out in certain stores. WHAT!!? Gah.

And here I am, dreaming of gooey dates and a crumbly oat bar.

Sarah at The Yellow House recently wrote a post about her Mother’s recipe box, and a particular recipe memory she was seeking, in the stumbling way that a motherless daughter tries to find answers to the questions that can never be solved. Sarah’s post, even in it’s despair and sadness, triggered something in me because I know all about that bitter walk after your Mother dies, the questions you wish you could ask, the reassurance like an anchor, that a Mother brings. She sought answers about a particular barbecue sauce recipe, and for me, the always unattainable answer I sought from my Mom’s spirit was for a treasured Date Bar recipe.

I’m pretty biased towards these iconic baked goods as they’ve been a favorite ever since I could remember stepping up to a kitchen counter, reaching up to place my hands on the worn edge and leaning hard around my Mom’s arm to see what she was doing. A recipe box open, the mass of dates simmering on the stove, the bowl of oats and sugar standing silently, waiting. The small pan ready. A kitchen warmed by an oven.

But then in a flash, I’m grown up, and my childhood kitchen dissipates. I’m a parent now, too. When my tiny boy reached his own chubby fingers towards that kitchen counter, I pulled up a chair and got him situated. We stirred together. We mixed and measured, my hand over his as his blue eyes watched closely. I gave him a knife and he carefully trimmed vegetables. He pushed his luck against my stern warning that yes, indeed that stovetop is still hot even though the burners are no longer red. I dried those tears and soothed the burns. We soldiered on. Pans of Brownies and chocolate cake came and went. Chocolate chip cookies- of course!- and Oatmeal Raisin, Snickerdoodles and Dark Chocolate Drops; Oatmeal Scotchies and Applesauce Cake, cookies every Christmas. Full bellies and full hearts, him and I.  His interest wavered, waned and often, he was absent as he grew too cool to stand by my side. Then, in some great moment of clarity, he returned to the kitchen again, a young man. Now he cooks his own food. Experiments. Expands. Still, if he said to me ‘Can you please make ______ ?’ I would likely tell him ‘Yes.’ and reach for the flour canister.

Because when I would sidle up next to my Mom as she thumbed through a cookbook, or pulled out her recipe card file for inspiration, often she would turn to me and say ‘Got any requests?’ and in my little girl, eager way, I would say “Please make those Date Bars!” And she would, smiling as she pulled the corner piece out of the pan to hand to me, it’s edges chewy and firm and we’d eat ’til our bellies were full, her and I. Eighteen years after her passing, her words still ring strong in my mind, for her baking was her love language, her moment to tell us how much she adored our faces, upturned and eager towards her as she pulled down worn metal tins of flour and sugar, turned the knob on the stove and sought out the warped, old cookie sheets, the favorite baking pan, drawing the aging cookie tin from the cupboard, the big round one with the roses on the top. I still have her recipe box, and I’ve poured over her it in vain, searching for that Date Bar recipe that she made for me, the one that was always just perfect, but I never found it. I poured pan after pan of warm date puree over an oat crust, trying to replicate the taste, seeking her smile in my memory and the love from a chewy corner piece but every time I bit down, the past wasn’t there. I wanted it to be, so badly. I reach for a container of flour, a sack of sugar,  thinking it will restore the dull ache in me that still echoes after nearly two decades. Sometimes the very act of baking will quiet the roar; other times, those first bites just make it more acute.

Then I find this one, a perfect Date Bar with a crunchy oat crust that browns and crisps in the oven, snapping apart to shower on the plate, crumbs falling in your lap that you happily pick up on moist fingertip, the rich dates cooked to a tender chew, gooey edge and all.

And the taste, smell and memory all come together in a tiny piece of cookie, too undeserving to be saddled with the burden of answering the questions of our past, but when I shut my eyes and bite, it’s all there. She’s all there. It’s swift and sharp, a nick of knife metal, barbed hooks caught against the heart. A moment meshes between child and adult, past and painful present wrapped in one oat crust, me as Mom and then, my Mother, with so many similarities between.

Oat and Nut Date Squares

1 8-oz package chopped dates (or equivalent of fresh)
1/4 c. black raisins
1 c. water
Zest from half an orange
2 t. orange  juice
1/2 c. ground almonds ( sub in walnuts or pecans if desired)
1/2 c. each whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour
1/2 t. sea salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/8 t. ground cloves
1 c. packed brown sugar
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, diced, softened but still fairly cold.
1 c. old fashioned rolled oats

Preheat oven to 350° and spray an 8×8 baking pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment paper so that it hangs over edge of pan, then spray the paper.

In small saucepan, combine dates, raisins and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally until all liquid has been absorbed and fruit is a thick, concentrated paste. This should take about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in orange zest and juice and blend well. Scrape onto a plate and spread to cool.

In the bowl of a food processor, place ground almonds, both flours, salt, soda and spices. Pulse to combine. Add in brown sugar and pulse to blend. Scatter butter over top and pulse until mixture is like coarse uneven meal. There should be lumps of butter in all sizes. Pour this into a large bowl and stir in the oats.

Press 2/3 of the mixture into the prepared pan, pressing down firmly. Spoon cooled date mixture over, spreading it to cover crust completely. Sprinkle remaining oat mixture over the top. Bake until top crust is golden brown and crisp, 30-40 minutes.

Cool bars completely on a rack, still in the pan. Once bars are at room temperature, gently lift them out of the pan using the parchment paper. Slice into 2″ squares to serve. These bars are delicious when chilled. Keep in airtight container or refrigerated.

 

{{adapted from an original recipe, author unknown}}

reconsidering walnuts

October 8th, 2010 | 4 Comments »

Walnuts and I have a rough history, a long-standing feud of stubbornness that I’ve only recently come to understand as being a massive error on my part.

And it all goes back, innocently, to my childhood and the fresh baked treats that Mom supplied us with endlessly. Just about everything she made had walnuts in it, and I thoroughly despised the little nuggets, endlessly picking them out of my chocolate chip cookies, my banana bread, my pumpkin bread and anything else that she felt impelled to stuff with those icky things. I used to watch in despair as she pulled the sack out of the cupboard, and groan once again “Walnuts! Why do you ALWAYS put walnuts in everything!?” to which she would always reply in that ‘Mom’ tone “When you bake your own cookies, you can do whatever you want.” and I was pretty powerless to argue THAT point. This coming from a Mom who would rise before the break of day in the summertime so she could bake cookies before it got too hot outside. The Mom who scorned margarine for real butter and always asked us what favorites we wanted her to make. I couldn’t get past those walnuts though. And true to my baking heritage, when I got older and baked in my own kitchen, there were never walnuts in my chocolate chip cookies. Or my banana bread. Or in my house, for that matter.

I recall a time, lingering over a steaming coffee at some non-descript coffee house, that I wandered to the bakery case with a growl in my tummy and innocently asked for a piece of banana bread. Back at my table, I broke off a chunk and with my eyes firmly focused on the magazine I was reading, popped the bite in my mouth and began to chew. Suddenly a familiar, but not so familiar taste spread over my tongue and I stared down at the slice on the plate in front of me. There, staring back was the unmistakeable shape of walnuts. In my banana bread. My tummy went ‘Errrrr….gurgle’ and the welcoming chunk of bread, rich with bananas and cinnamon beckoned me. I realized though, that whatever taste was in my mouth seemed a far cry from that of my youth, the dreaded taste of pasty walnuts. I meticulously picked a chunk of nut from the bread, and with a deep intake of courage, I stuck it in my mouth.

‘This couldn’t possibly be a walnut.’ I thought to myself. ‘It tastes….. good!’ I took another bite of the bread and there it was again, the texture so familiar, but the flavor so foreign. It tasted nutty, moist and tender; it was crunchy not mealy. It was a nut that I had shunned and crossed my eyes at for my entire lifetime and here I was, enjoying it and wide-eyed at the experience. What the heck! Had I really grown up that much? Crossed the threshold of petulant youth to that of an open-minded adult with equally open-minded tastebuds? Had I been “gasp” wrong this whole time about walnuts??

I stretched myself even further by purchasing some walnuts fresh from the bin at the local co-op and chopping them up for a pumpkin muffin I made at home. I was hesitant, wondering if the whole batch was going to end up in the trash. But the first bite was another eye-opener and the muffins were delicious. I even took a walnut out of the bag and ate it, plain. I felt 10 feet tall too. The only thing that saved it from being a celestial experience was that I couldn’t call my Mom and tell her, triumphantly, that I found out I enjoyed walnuts. I think that I felt her smiling down at me from above though.

What I realized, and with quite a shock of clarity is that the walnuts my Mom purchased always came from the baking aisle at the supermarket, and likely were rancid and old, leaving a stale and metallic taste in my mouth. Walnuts have a high fat content, and need to be kept fresh. I like to keep all my bulk nuts in the freezer so they last a long time. Without that old and yucky taste in my mouth, I found that walnuts were as enjoyable as other nuts I’ve incorporated into my diet such as almonds, pistachios, pecans and peanuts. I grew up not liking nuts much at all until I learned how awesome fresh ones can be, and now I purchase nearly all of our nuts from the bulk bins at the markets.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve learned to appreciate a food that had been black-listed in my kitchen. We tend to tie our dislike of foods to personal taste, but what I’ve discovered is that often it can be traced to either a lack of freshness or an incorrect cooking procedure that makes a food unpalatable. Mike told me when we first met that he didn’t like salmon, but his past experiences with it came down to it being over-cooked, which turned it dry and rubbery. Once he ate a piece of perfectly cooked salmon, he never looked back and now he requests salmon often.

Looking for something delicious for those walnuts? This Date Nut Bread is amazing. You could try adding them to this hearty Overnight Muesli too, in addition to the almonds, and they could also be substituted for the pecans in these Pumpkin Maple Muffins.

(from the Health Castle website)………“Walnuts are one of the best plant sources of protein. They are rich in fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, and antioxidants such as Vitamin E.  Nuts in general are also high in plant sterols and fat – but mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (omega-three fatty acids - the good fats) that have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. Walnuts, in particular, have significantly higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids as compared to other nuts”

Yes, it's those Sugar Plums

December 20th, 2009 | 14 Comments »

Those Sugar Plums, the ones that dance in the head during the long winter slumber in the most familiar Christmas story that’s likely ever been written. How did I get to be this age, with a teenager and a husband, long gone away from treasured annual reads of that classic story each year, the retelling of Santa’s magical visit, and not have any clue what a real sugar plum entailed? I want to kick myself.

Because, I’ll tell you something, and this is no small truth. Had I known about these delightful, sweet and simple little treats prior to this past week, how easy they are to put together and how eager and surprised everyone looks when you pull out a container and say “These are Sugar Plums. Yes! THOSE Sugar Plums!” I’m telling you, it would be all I need and I’d have been cranking out these nutty fruit-filled, orange-scented orbs the moment the calendar page flipped over to the month of Christmas.


My hope now is that I don’t go so far into overkill that I never want to see a dried apricot again. The delight and flavor and simplicity of these might possibly have that effect on me. Good thing Christmas is just a few days away. It’s a bit embarrassing, really, to be so interested in food of all kinds, the history of it, the stories it can tell and not be aware of this confection. But that’s what we have friends for, isn’t it? To enlighten us? To share the wealth?

And little could be simpler than combining rough-chopped nuts and dried fruit in a food processor along with honey and orange juice and whirring it all into an utterly fragrant crush of flavor. Even the rolling of the mixture was contemplative, as the sun warmed my backside and Miles Davis kept me company with his sultry trumpet. A late afternoon of putting together a Christmas fiction and ballet classic that I know I will love for years to come left me feeling a lot more festive than I have been lately. With the addition of a fragrant tree, dragged through a snowy wood, and boxes filled with a lifetime of memories and nostalgia also added some much-needed holiday spirit to my life. If all I need to do that is a few packages of dried fruit and some bags of nuts, then holidays from now on could become much more simpler. One can only hope, anyway.

Sugar Plums

Recipe from Field Guide to Candy by Anita Chu; Quirk Books, 2009    (and Susan)

2 cups almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup pitted dates
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon honey
Unsweetened flaked coconut for rolling

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper.

2. Combine almonds, apricots, dates, cinnamon, and zest in a food processor and process into a finely ground mixture.

3. Add orange juice and honey, and combine until the mixture becomes a sticky ball.

4. Pinch off pieces of the mixture and form into 1-inch balls. Roll in coconut. Place on the baking sheet and chill for about 1 hour until firm.

KATE’S NOTES:
I used two cups equivalent of nuts, utilizing pistachios and pecans as well as almonds. It’s my holy trifecta of nutty favorites.  I might have used figs in place of dates, and on another go-round of this recipe, I probably will do just that along with dried cherries. The possibilities are endless for substitutions. Use raisins both black or gold, dried cranberries, currants, pineapple, mango. Other nuts like peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts. Try it with lemon juice and zest for a different background of flavor.

I also added a teaspoon of ground nutmeg to the mix. Cinnamon and nutmeg are culinary best buds. They really get along so well together that it’s a shame to leave one out when the other is present.

I added a bit more honey and orange juice, as the amount in the recipe didn’t seem to be enough to make the mixture as sticky as it needed to hold together. Adjust it according to your taste preferences.

Deconstructing Dukka

June 9th, 2008 | 3 Comments »

Nuts, seeds…..it isn’t too complicated, but in trying to find out more information about this aromatic and amazing Middle Eastern spice mix (say ‘Doo-kah), I came across more variations on a theme than I ever anticipated. It’s just nuts. And seeds!

But apparently, it’s one of those ‘authentic’ spice blends that varies as much as the fingerprint on the cook who is creating the mix. Use roasted hazelnuts; no use roasted chick peas. Don’t use sunflower seeds…oh wait, this version calls for sunflower seeds. This one requires pumpkin seeds, this one walnuts This one needs a bay leaf! I need thyme!! I need cinnamon!!! I need telicherry peppercorns!!!!

Oooh boy….. I need a drink.

Thankfully, all this clicking around on the web came after I had already made up the recipe from the current issue of Food and Wine magazine. Had I done all this foot work beforehand, I may have just tossed my hands in the air begging for mercy. Cooking, at least in my kitchen, just doesn’t need to be so whittled away like one may peel an onion. I’m all for the philosophy that if it works for you, then that’s the best way to go.

And this recipe worked for me. But then again, I am a nutcase, er, well, I mean….. I really like nuts. To eat. And a recipe with no less than four types of nuts in it deserves a spot in my kitchen. Pistachios, almonds, cashews and hazelnuts are oven-roasted; coriander and cumin seed, along with unsweetened coconut and sesame seeds are lightly toasted in a hot skillet, and the resulting fragrant chaos is pulsed in a food processor to a coarse consistency. Or chunky. Or a powder. Or a paste. According to the endless variations, you can pick your level of nutty destruction, and if you’re one to have texture issues, this is a good thing.

The one thing that all the recipes I came across seem to agree on is that the most common way to eat the delectable mess of nuts is to dip bread into olive oil and then dredge it in the mix. I can vouch for the reliability of this usage; it works really well. And had I not made a delicious Chicken Satay for dinner, with a nice vegetable coucous on the side, I would have been fully satisfied to consume the entire ciabatta loaf dipped in perfect oil and rich with the heady crunch of this blend. Even upon discovering that an error on my part resulted in about 10 times more cumin seeds in my mix than the original recipe called for, it was still wonderful, fragrant, and happily received. I can’t wait to spoon it into my morning yogurt, sprinkle it over a salad, blend it into hot cereal, use it to coat chicken, spoon onto ice cream……..

You see……the resulting possibilities, as I have discovered, are as endless as the recipe variations I found, making it not only delicious, but infinitely versatile as well. And I just love foods like that.

(jump for recipe and notes)

Come in to my kitchen…

Sweet Saffron Pilaf with Currants and Nuts

June 29th, 2007 | 10 Comments »

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Sweet Saffron Pilaf with Nuts and Currants

1 ¼ c. basmati rice
2 ½ c. water
¼ t. saffron threads
1 T. milk or cream
1/8 c. canola oil or ghee
A 2-inch cinnamon stick
10 green cardamom pods, pounded in a bowl or pestle to open the shells
A 1-ince piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
¼ c. dried currants
¼ c. chopped roasted almonds
¼ c. pistachios, shelled and chopped
¼ c. sugar

Combine rice and water in medium bowl and soak for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving water, and set rice aside.
Gently crush saffron threads in small bowl with back of spoon. Stir in milk and mix gently. Set aside.
Combine oil or ghee, cinnamon stick, cardamom and ginger in medium, heavy bottom pan (with a cover) over medium high heat, stir and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add in currants and nuts and cook, stirring often, for 2-3 minutes. Add rice, stir to coat and cook for 1-3 minutes. Pour in reserved water, stir and bring to a high simmer, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle rice evenly with sugar, then drizzle saffron/milk mix over the top. Cover pan again, and on very low heat, cook for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and allow rice to rest 10-15 minutes. Serve hot garnished with fresh toasted nuts if desired.

Kate's Ambrosia

May 7th, 2007 | 6 Comments »

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So with all the good news out there about the health benefits of eating nuts, having a container of trail mix, or gorp if you are so inclined, on your counter for snacks seems like it would be a great idea, doesn’t it? Lots of grocers and all natural food stores carry bulk products where you can scoop out what you want and customize your mix to your liking. It’s a simple, easy snack that you can take anywhere; Mike will scoop up a baggie full to have in the car when he has a client meeting and it keeps him from stopping to get something junky when he is on the road.

For our favorite blend, I like to use dried apricots, craisins, dried blueberries and black raisins for the fruit; soynuts, unsalted roasted almonds, unsalted sunflower nuts, pistachios and salted roasted peanuts for the nutty component. I throw in handfuls and stir until it looks right; it certainly isn’t rocket science. Some salt is ok, and for whatever oddball reason, I really like dried apricots dusted with some of that salt. I have sometimes put in chocolate chips, flaked coconut or currants too. It’s entirely up to you as to what you use, that’s the beauty of it. So if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got the munchies and a perfect snack to satisfy it.