I acquired my love of cooking from my mom, who grew up on a remote homestead in the Peace River valley. The oldest girl of 6 kids, she was expected to pitch in as soon as she was able, so cooking was something she picked up early on.
Matrimonial Cake, a staple dessert of rural Canadians, was one of her earliest desserts. I grew up eating these simple but satisfying bars, and I still judge a coffee shop by the quality of its date squares (their more common name). You could say that date squares are the cornerstone of my whole approach to food, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
It’s a wonder it ever came to that, though, considering my mom’s early experience with the recipe
The fateful day likely wasn’t the first time she ever made them, but it was definitely the most memorable. When you’re 8 years old, baking in a temperamental wood oven, with the vast Alberta wilderness calling you to play, things can go sideways fast. The story of how terrible those bars were lives on in our family’s history, retold with fondness whenever my mom and her siblings are together (the resulting cake was so overdone that the knife shattered when my grandmother tried to cut it). Treats were a rarity for this bunch, though, so it was gobbled down without a moment’s hesitation, teeth be damned.
I’ve tried many variations over the years, but any fancy additions are wasted on me; this one is simple and tastes like home. I’ve gone ahead and made the recipe more veg friendly, replacing the lard with non-dairy margarine, but feel free to use butter if you like. I prefer a more cookie-like consistency to my crumb topping, so I’ve also increased the amount of fat a bit, and will even add a sprinkle of water if things aren’t clumping together well enough. (I don’t like a topping that you accidentally inhale when you move in to take a bite.)
This recipe is based on those compressed blocks of dates, which are quite dry. I find that I have to increase the amount by as much as 50% (up to 3/4 of a pound) if using softer dates such as medjool, as their higher moisture content will give you more weight with less fruit. Don’t sweat this too much – worst case scenario, you end up with a bit more filling than usual.
Date Squares (Matrimonial Cake)
Simple, wholesome date squares. My grandmother's original recipe (made vegan)!
- 2 cups rolled oats
- 2 cups flour (see recipe notes)
- 1 cup light brown sugar (packed)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 scant tsp baking soda
- 1 cup non-hydrogenated/non-dairy margarine
- 1-2 tbsp water (if needed)
- 1/2 - 3/4 pound dates (see notes)
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup brown sugar
Combine water, dates, and brown sugar in medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, mashing the dates occasionally until they break down and form a fairly thick paste (this takes about 15 to 20 minutes). While dates are cooking down, prepare crust (instructions below).
Let dates cool slightly before pouring over base.
Prepare 9 x 9 baking pan (grease bottom and sides, line with a band of parchment, if desired).
Combine dry crust ingredients in a large bowl. Either cut or rub margarine into the flour mixture until you have course crumbs. Squeeze a handful to see if it stays together in loose clumps, or falls apart as powder. If too dry, sprinkle with up to 2 tablespoons of water and mix well to incorporate (use just enough to make it form small clumps, not a wet mass). Press half of the mixture into prepared pan.
Pour dates over the prepared base, and spread it until the filling is an even thickness. Top with remaining crust mixture, pressing down lightly to firm.
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until lightly golden. Let cool before cutting.
*I used a combination of sprouted spelt and unbleached flour, but feel free to use just all purpose or whole wheat.
*The measurement for dates is based on those dry compressed blocks. If using fresh, soft dates, increase the amount to about 3/4 of a pound.
Mom honed her skills in the kitchen over the years, and it wasn’t long before I was at her side, learning the ropes. Our foodie obsession is a bond that has made me who I am, and is something I will always cherish.
That temperamental old cook stove was trouble right ’til the end. When the new property owners lifted the original house to move it to its new spot on the farm, the stove flatly refused and fell through the floor to the field below. It sits there to this day, a reminder of simpler times. It’s missing a couple of pieces now, rusty mementos my mom salvaged on a recent visit to the homestead. I love the image of her young self manipulating those iron vents, coaxing the oven to the correct temperature, my aunt and uncles impatiently waiting to fill their bellies.
Cooking has become an expression of love in our family, and as such, food is often at the center of our most precious memories, though not always exactly as we’d planned it.
*An excerpt of this story was featured on the Harrowsmith website as part of How Does Your Cookie Crumble.