If you’re not from Pittsburgh, then you may not be familiar with the long-standing tradition of cookie tables at weddings. It’s a regional tradition, and one that has been documented locally and in The New York Times. Even though a cake is served, it’s customary for the couple’s family and friends to bake homemade cookies for a display of cookies for guests to eat throughout the evening. Typically, the couple also provides take-home boxes for guests to fill up before they head home. It’s certainly one of my favorite Pittsburgh traditions; we certainly know how to do food! A little over a month ago, I was at a wedding with a fabulous cookie table and sampled some of the date bars. It reminded me that I had been wanting to pull out my great aunt’s recipe that I swore my grandma had. After multiple passes through her handwritten recipes and coming up empty, my mom made two calls to family in Wisconsin and tracked down the recipe.
I did make some “date bars” last year, but as I mentioned at the time, they definitely had more of a cake-like blondie consistency. These new date bars are much more along the lines of what I have been craving. They’re thin and have the consistency of a soft biscotti – very spongelike and extremely soft. The dough is packed with so many dates that are so finely chopped that they are almost a paste. Throw in ground walnuts and a sprinkle of powdered sugar and you have the best date bars I’ve ever tasted.
There’s no doubt that these are totally worthy of a cookie table. It’s too bad that my Zia Lena (who passed away quite awhile ago) didn’t live in Pittsburgh; I’m certain there would be people willing to pay her to bake for their cookie table!
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 10x15-inch jelly roll pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder; set aside.
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat together the sugar and butter, until combined (it will be crumbly). Add the eggs, water, vanilla extract and salt and beat until thoroughly combined, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the chopped dates and ground walnuts.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool, cut into squares and dust. They can be dusted with powdered sugar, if desired. These cookies can be stored in an airtight container or covered tightly with plastic wrap, at room temperature for up to 1 week.