Holiday Almanac December 18: Brownies and Date Bars

For more information on the Holiday Almanac, go hereOr to see what I've been up to on past Holiday Almanac days, check out this page.

One week til Christmas, and that means you're probably swamped with things to do between now and then. Good news, though! Here are some recipes that don't take a lot of work but will make you look like the greatest hostess (or guest) that ever lived.

Remember how I said there are some things about British Christmas that I don't understand? Like why Stilton goes on sale at the supermarket and what you use brandy butter for? Well, add these to the list: despite the fact that people use images of candy canes to decorate store windows, Christmas displays, and tonnes of other things, you can only buy candy canes at specialty stores around here-- places like upscale department stores with huge Christmas sections. Also, robins and hedgehogs are somehow both considered Christmas animals, which I don't understand. I mean, hedgehogs? They're super cute, but why Christmas? Maybe their diet consists of only Stilton and that's why they only come out at Christmas? I don't know. Anyway, the hedgehog and robin thing doesn't really affect my day-to-day life around here, but the lack of candy canes was a major problem when I wanted to make these brownies festive.

These brownies are my favourite brownie recipe (which should really hold some water around here because I love brownies). They're my aunt's recipe which I needled out of her years ago, and I make them at least once every few months because they're the perfect combination of chewy, fudgy, dense, and delicious. I also love them with frosting, but since Judson hates frosting, I made them bald for the Christmas party we had a few weeks ago. Initially, I was planning on cutting out the brownies using cookie cutters to make them more festive, but these bake too high and tall to make cookie cutters a feasible option (which is a crying shame because I have so many). So, alas, we served them in plain squares, and due to the lack of candy canes, I topped them with After Eight peppermints. No one complained.

As for the date bars, they're delicious. You could throw a handful of toffee bits in (like a chopped up Heath bar), or add more nuts or fruit to make them a little more hearty, but as they are, they're just perfection. Sweet and cosy from the brown sugar and toasted nuts, and they're the perfect balance of chewy in the middle and crisp on the edges, and no one else will be bringing them to your weekend party, so you don't have to worry about being that guy that shows up with the 3rd batch of chocolate chip cookies.

The verdict:

5 spoons for the brownies, 4 spoons out of five for the date bars. They're delicious, but they were a bit of a fussy recipe with toasted nuts, boiled buttermilk, and a bunch of other intricacies that make this a 4-bowl recipe. I narrowed it down below so you can avoid doing as many dishes as I did, but you might still go with the one-bowl brownies if you're in a hurry.

The recipe:

Chewy, Fudgy Brownies

(Adapted from my aunt, who I think adapted this from a box of cocoa)

the directions:

Preheat oven to 176C/350F and grease an 11x15 pan (or two 8x8 pans).
Combine sugar, butter, and water in a large bowl.
Stir in eggs and vanilla.
Add flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt, then stir well to combine.
Bake 20 minutes, lower heat to 160C/325F and check every 5 minutes until a pick inserted in the middle comes out slightly sticky.

the ingredients:

3 1/3 c sugar
12 oz butter, melted
4 tbsp water
4 eggs
4 t vanilla
2 2/3 c flour
1 ½ c cocoa
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
Optional garnish: crushed candy canes or chopped After Eight mints

The recipe:

Date Bars

(Adapted from Diane Mott Davidson's Sweet Revenge)

the directions:

Preheat oven to 160C/325F and grease a 9x13 pan.
Combine dates, raisins, and buttermilk in a small bowl and stir to coat.
Set aside while you prepare the rest of the bars.
In a medium-sized bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Set aside.
Beat butter with an electric mixer until very creamy.
Add brown sugar and beat well until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Mix in the vanilla.
Using a spatula, stir in flour mixture, fruit mixture, and nuts, stirring only until combined.
Turn the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
Bake 25-30 minutes until a pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Makes 24 bars.

the ingredients:

¾ c chopped dates
½ c raisins, sultanas, or currants
2 tbsp buttermilk
2 c flour
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
8 oz butter, room temperature
2 c dark brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 c pecans, coarsely chopped