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Date Squares

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Our grandma’s were really on to something when it came to baking. As recently as two years ago I considered date squares to be “grandma food”. I was right, to an extent. I mean, growing up you never asked for date squares in your school lunch box. You asked for rice crispy squares or Duncan Hines cupcakes. You had date squares when you were visiting your grandma (or other women of equal age and stature) for tea.

You can add date squares to the list of foods I used to hate as a kid. To me, they weren’t an indulgent treat. They had fruit in them. They had oats. They were not covered in milk chocolate. I didn’t spare them a second glance.

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Like most things I under-appreciated growing up, I randomly started missing those tea times with grandma when I was living in Toronto and stressed to the max from working in a busy kitchen. I missed simple flavours and treats where you could taste the butter and brown sugar that went into them. So, among other things, I started making these date squares.

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Other folk must be as nostalgic as me, because the date squares quickly became my most “in demand” product. Patrick’s coworkers would regularly ask for them and when I had a stall at the farmer’s market they would sell by the dozen. I realized that a square I originally considered too “healthy” was considered by most others a homey and indulgent treat.

And these squares are anything but healthy. Who was I kidding? Yes, there are dates and oats in there, but the date filling is brought together with brown sugar to a toffee-like consistency and the oat base and topping is as comprised of sugar and butter as it is of oats. So you can make yourself feel better by believing these are healthier treats, but that isn’t the reality of the situation.

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Date Squares

Ingredients:

For the filling:

Two packages of dates, pitted

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup brewed tea

1 tsp good quality vanilla

For the base/topping:

1 1/2 cups rolled oats

1 1/2 cups AP flour

1 cup cold butter, cubed

1 tsp baking soda

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 tsp salt

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 350 degrees (180 degrees Celsius, no fan). Line an 11 x 7 rectangular pan with parchment and set aside.
  • In a large saucepan, bring the dates, sugar, brewed tea and vanilla to a boil. Cook this mixture until it’s thickened, about 5 minutes of boiling. Remember to stir often as the mixture could burn.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the cold, cubed butter and rub the butter into the dry mixture until you’ve achieved a crumble texture.
  • Divide the oat mixture in half. Add one half to the bottom of the pan and press firmly until the base is evenly covered.
  • When the date filling has thickened, use a spatula to pour the contents over the first oat layer. Spread the filling evenly over the oat base.
  • Top the filling with the other half of the oat base and press it lightly until the filling is completely covered by the oat topping.
  • Bake for 30 minutes. The top and bottom should be evenly baked and light brown in colour. Allow to cool completely before dividing into square portions.

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Pomegranate & Toasted Almond Couscous Salad

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Happy Friday!

This is the first time in weeks we’ll be spending the weekend at our house in Waterford. Combine a weekend at home with our broken washing machine finally getting fixed and you’ve got a list of mom chores a mile long to get through. Here’s just a taste of what needs doing:

  1. Laundry. And then some laundry. Then more laundry.
  2. Guest room bed made; sheets washed.
  3. Go to the Nearly New Sale on Sunday and buy a crib. And try to refrain from buying a million other baby items.
  4. Set up said crib, finish the nursery, set up baby monitors (yes, I realize my baby is three months old, but if she isn’t sleeping in her nursery yet it doesn’t have to be finished!).
  5. Bake Christmas Cakes.
  6. Clean. And then clean. And then a bit more cleaning.
  7. Make Sunday Roast.
  8. Groceries.
  9. Make a to-do list for Christmas. Seriously, I need to be organized.
  10. Get photos developed at Harvey Norman.

Etc., etc., etc.

So just a quick post today, hastily typed while Maeve plays with her toys on the carpet (before she gets bored and I have to walk her around the house until she falls asleep… if she falls asleep). We had this couscous salad last night served warm to accompany some seared salmon, but it was even better today as a cold lunch.

Pomegranates are in season and those plump, juice-filled seeds remind me that Christmas isn’t too far off (omgomgomg). Combined with some fluffy couscous, zingy lemon, olive oil and scallions they make a super tasty, Middle Eastern inspired side (for example, served warm this salad would be delicious with braised lamb) or healthy lunch. If you want to go crazy, season some natural yogurt with cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper and drizzle over the salad.

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Pomegranate & Toasted Almond Couscous Salad

Ingredients:

2 cups cooked couscous (or barley, or bulgur, or quinoa)

1/2 bunch scallions, thinly sliced

rind of one lemon, finely chopped

seeds of one pomegranate

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

2 Tbsp good quality olive oil

2 tsp sea salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

1/2 bunch fresh, flat leaf parsley, finely chopped (chiffonade)

handful of fresh arugula (rocket), for garnish

Directions:

  • Toss the couscous, pomegranate, lemon zest, scallions, almonds, parsley, olive oil & salt and pepper in a bowl to combine.
  • Plate and garnish with arugula and another drizzle of olive oil.
  • Serve hot, warm or cold as a side of main dish.

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Bramley Apple Crumble Pie

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Another season, another seasonal fruit – it’s one of the things I love most about living in Ireland. Gone are the days of Wexford strawberries and sun-ripened blackberries; now we’re knee-deep in Bramley apples. At home we have Galas and Granny Smiths. Bramleys, not so much. I hadn’t even heard of them before moving. Now, though, they’re my go-to baking apple – a bit tart for eating on their own, but they make the most amazing crisps, pies, tarts and turnovers.

With an almost-three-month-old to care for I don’t really have that much time to bake – or even plan to bake. I’ve been meaning to start my Christmas cakes for several weeks now – maybe I’ll get them done next week. I’ve been meaning to make jelly for over a month – however I can’t find cheesecloth anywhere (although I am told that I can get muslin in the baby section at Tesco, so maybe I’ll make some next week). I’m pretty worn out, to be honest. Luckily, pie-making can be accomplished with little to no hassle, and since I’ve got so many lovely apples to work with right now, they’re taking centre stage in my pies.

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The key to a good pie is simple. You need a good crust and a good filling (a revelation, I know). I’ve been making pies for a long time, but I’ve only been making them well since I began my career as a cook and had less time to fuss over them.

A good pie crust can be so simple – it needs very few ingredients, a tender but firm hand and time to chill and relax. People tend to be scared of shortcrust pastry, but they needn’t be. The best advice I can give is don’t listen to those who warn not to handle or overwork the dough. Why? Because you won’t work the dough enough, as a result, and it’ll be a crumbly, sandy-textured mess.

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If you’re making shortcrust for the first time, work the dough enough to bring it together into a ball. If it doesn’t come together into a ball, you need either more moisture or you need to knead it a few times on a floured surface. If you overwork it the first time, you’ll know how much to hold back the next time. It’s all about practise.

For my Bramley Apple Crumble Pie, I added a little extra something to the filling. Highbank Orchard Syrup comes from County Kilkenny. I picked up a bottle at the Ballymaloe Garden Festival last August and have been using it in my morning oatmeal ever since. It’s got a really deep, dark apple flavour and is a great substitute for molasses, honey or maple syrup when baking. It’s also great for adding some depth to an apple pie, as you’ll find out if you make this recipe.

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Bramley Apple Crumble Pie

Ingredients:

For the crust:

2 cups AP flour

1 cup cold, cubed, unsalted butter

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup ice water (or less)

For the filling:

5-6 large Bramley apples (or Granny Smiths if you’re in North America)

1/4 cup AP flour

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 Tbsp Highbank Orchard Syrup

1 tsp ground cinnamon

For the crumble topping:

1/2 cup AP flour

1/2 cup cold, cubed butter

1/2 cup white sugar

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (190 degrees Celsius, no fan)
  • Either in a bowl or in your food processor with a dough blade, rub or cut the butter into the salt and flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  • Slowly add the water a bit at a time until you can form a ball with the dough. If you’re not using a food processor, mix the dough by hand, kneading it a bit, until it forms a ball – you may not need the entire 1/2 cup of water.
  • On a floured surface, knead the dough once or twice, divide it in half, shape each half into a disc and wrap in plastic. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or overnight (or you can freeze it indefinitely at this stage).
  • Peel and thinly slice your Bramley apples. In a bowl, combine the apples with the orchard syrup, flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Toss to coat the apple slices and mix the ingredients evenly.
  • Roll out one disc of dough to roughly 1/4 inch thickness. Lay the sheet of pastry over a pie or tart pan and trim/crimp the edges. Pour the apple mixture over the pastry.
  • In a bowl, rub together the sugar, butter and flour with your fingers until you’ve achieved coarse crumbs. Spread the crumb topping evenly over the apples.
  • Put the pie pan on a cookie sheet in case the filling bubbles over the side. Place in the centre rack of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes. The topping will be golden brown and the crust around the edges will be brown and flaky.
  • Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or fresh whipping cream.

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