By Gabby Peyton
There is a whole lot going on with the Date Square. A cookie — a square, really — of many names, it not only offers a crumbly sweet dessert option but also some shockingly succinct marriage advice. And while it’s a cornerstone cookie across Canada with a large following, not many people realize it because the Date Square is known by at least a dozen different names.
So, what is a Date Square? It is a layered baked dessert consisting of two buttery, brown sugary oatmeal layers with a layer of sweet date paste sandwiched in between. It’s baked, cut into squares and inhaled by those who love them. Date Squares really have a cult following across Canada.
There is some variation when it comes to a date squares recipe — some versions add cinnamon to the oatmeal mixture, while others add flavour to the date filling like almond extract or lemon (using juice and zest). Others include candied citrus peel or nuts like walnuts or pecans in the date filling.
However, the biggest variation when it comes to Date Squares is not the ingredients, but the name! The Date Square across the country is known by at least a dozen aliases which include (but are certainly not limited to): Matrimonial Cake, Matrimonial Squares, Matrimonial Bars, Matrimony Cake, Date Crumbles, Toni Cake, Date Sandwich Cake and Carré aux dattes.
Baked into the old adage
It is perhaps the old wives’ tales and anecdotes that tell the best story of date squares across the country and how they came to be called a multitude of names surrounding marriage and dating. For some the layers symbolize couples courting and completing the bond (the joining of layers) with marriage.
Others on the prairies recall they were named Matrimonial Bars because they were “a couple of crumbs stuck together by a few dates.” Or that they represented marriage because the bars had “a firm foundation and a sweet centre, though it looked a bit rocky.”
A sticky origin story
Whatever you might call them, there is no definitive origin story or pedigree to the date square. In fact, date squares are also popular in the midwest of the United States (although there is some evidence that Ohio newspapers “borrowed” the recipe for Matrimonial Bars in the 1930s). But they are unequivocally Canadian and recall a sense of delicious nostalgia from Vancouver Island to St. John’s.
It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that it’s the German wave of immigration to the prairies in the late 1800s that conceived the idea of the date square — its preparation isn’t dissimilar to a streusel.
An Icelandic connection also came to Canada’s mid-west and some say the matrimonial connection of the name comes from the direct translation of Icelandic’s version of “Happy Wedding Cake” — although some bakers use rhubarb jam in this dish instead of date puree.
Some cookie histories tell the tale of Scottish immigrants bringing their wedding cake tradition — in which two layers of fruit cake, the first made on the announcement of the engagement, the second just before the wedding, are tiered for the reception and served — to Canada and is an iteration of the baked dessert we know today.
The recipe for success
Date Squares recipes first started appearing in bakeries and in brand-sponsored cookbooks like the Purity Cookbook and the Five Roses flour cookbook as early as the 1920s, but rose in popularity in the 1930s, particularly in the prairie provinces where the dessert is known as Matrimonial Cake.
Cafés and bakeries across Alberta were advertising date squares as early as 1922 but it was The Irma Times based in the small town of Irma, Alberta, that first offered a recipe for the Matrimonial Squares in their May 4th, 1928 edition.
Date Squares gained popularity in the 1930s during the Great Depression, thanks to the natural sweetness of dates. It’s said that because candied fruit and nuts were not readily available (and by the 1930s considered a luxury), dates, molasses, oats and flour would have been easily accessible in rural areas like the prairies, northern Quebec and Newfoundland, making Date Squares an easy and affordable dessert for large families.
By the 1940s, Canada’s wartime rationing would have meant things like sugar and eggs made cookies and desserts lessen in variety — date squares persevered. In Quebec, the ‘carré aux dattes’ became very popular after the Second World War perhaps spread by cookbooks from Robin Hood and Five Roses. Dates and oats are not a particularly popular part of Quebecois cuisine, but perhaps the economical aspect appealed to home bakers.
These days date squares are a Christmas time favourite with many Canadians including them in their holiday baking and cookie trays, as well as in church sales and Christmas markets. The humble date square is surprisingly sweet and perfect with a cup of tea, enjoyed from Victoria, British Columbia to St. John’s Newfoundland. Whatever you call it, it is comfort, squared.
- 2 1/2 cups pitted dates, chopped
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1 3/4 cups rolled oats
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup cold unsalted butter
- Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease an 8-inch (20 cm) square baking pan.
- To make the date filing: Combine the dates and water in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally until the mixture thickens, around 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla and let cool. Set aside.
- Combine rolled oats, flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Pulse 3 times (careful not to overmix, you don’t want the mixture to be powdery, just combined). Add butter and pulse again until the mixture is crumbly in pea-sized clumps. Transfer to a mixing bowl to thoroughly mix in the butter.
- Spread half of the oat mixture on the bottom of the prepared baking pan, pressing down to make a flat, equal bottom later. Add the date mixture over the crust and then spread evenly. Layer with the remaining oat mixture and press down to flatten the top layer.
- Bake in the centre of the oven until the top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool completely in the pan before cutting and serving. Date Squares keep well, covered in the refrigerator for up to a week, and frozen for 2 to 3 months.