The first time I tasted date squares I was about four years old and I absolutely hated them. But because they were at all of our family events, I eventually grew to love them, asking my grandmother to bake them for my eighth birthday.
To me, date squares taste like home. They’re sort of crunchy with the rolled oats on the outside, while date-filled centre is kind of gooey, especially when you warm them up.
Because Newfoundland is an island, people didn’t always have the luxury of fresh fruit year-round, so canned fruits were always a hot commodity, and many traditional dishes here are made with dates. It was my mother’s mother, Grandma Morrissey, who taught me how to make date squares. I’d say I eat them once or twice a month, if I’m lucky, and at all family events, especially on my grandfather’s birthday. When I make them, I use homemade butter that my father’s mother, Dolores Tobin, taught me to make.
When my father was a child, my Nanny Tobin opened a creamery in Ship Cove, outside of Placentia. They started making butter and called it Spyglass Butter, as she would make prints on top with an old-fashioned wooden stamp shaped like a spyglass. My grandmother gave her kids shares in the creamery when they were young, and to earn their keep, she had them do things like watch the machines and churn the butter.
The photo on the butter label was of my great-aunt: Nanny Tobin’s mother’s sister. As a young girl, my great-aunt had a cream cow named Bessie, and it was her chore to make butter for the family. As she got older, she learned to make stamps of butter. She gave these stamped celebration butters to people for birthdays and holidays.
They were really, really good, so one day when Nanny Tobin was about my age, she asked her sister, “Can you teach me to make them, too?” Nanny said it was the hardest thing she’d ever done because the churning was all done manually, and she wasn’t used to that kind of work. When her aunt passed away, my grandmother continued to make the butter and started her company.
Nanny Tobin’s Spyglass Butter was eventually sold all over Newfoundland and in Ontario, too. The creamery grew so big that today it’s part of Central Dairies, and the butter is no longer made by hand.
Around Christmas, I go to my grandmother’s house where she has a big wooden bucket on the porch and we churn our own butter manually, just as she was taught by her aunt. For my date squares, I buy a lot of Spyglass Butter to bake them with, and that’s what makes them taste so good.
Grandma Morrissey’s Date Squares
Recipe courtesy of Caroline Tobin.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 1 ¼ hours
Yield: 12 servings
2 cups (500 mL) dates
1 cup (250 mL) hot water
1 cup (250 mL) packed brown sugar
1½ cups (375 mL) rolled oats
1 cup (250 mL) flour
¾ cup (175 mL) Spyglass Butter or other butter
1½ tsp (7 mL) baking soda
½ tsp (2 mL) salt
1. In saucepan, combine dates, water and ½ cup (125 mL) of the brown sugar, then let simmer over medium heat until dates are mashable. Give them a stir to ensure the dates have fallen apart completely.
2. In a large bowl, mix together oats, flour, remaining brown sugar, butter, baking soda and salt until crumbly.
3. Divide oat mixture in half. Press half (or slightly more than half) into the bottom of an 8-inch glass baking dish. Spread the entire date mixture overtop, and crumble remaining oat mixture over top.
4. Bake at 350°F for just under 1 hour or until golden brown. Let cool and cut into squares.
Written by Caroline Tobin, as told to Valerie Howes
Caroline Tobin is a young teen living in Mount Pearl, N.L., near St. John’s. Date squares are one of her favourite things to bake because they bring together traditions from both her mother’s and her father’s sides of the family.
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