Growing up, I went to a small private school in Houston. And while I might not have been fond of everything that went down in my uniformed, Lutheran class of twenty kids, I was pretty satisfied with lunch.
As I imagine is common in school cafeterias, it was cool to pretend that a lot of extremely delicious things were gross. For example, cheesy chicken spaghetti was positively revolting, but I secretly loved it and still crave the stuff. Then there was the time I found a bay leaf in my lasagna and had to pretend that our food was disgusting and full of leaves, like, outside leaves. Heaven help the kid whose mom packed egg salad (so good! but you couldn’t eat it in public!). In those glorious days before widespread nut allergies had reached us, though, chocolate peanut butter bars were beyond reproach.
Mrs. Ultis was our lunch lady for all ten of my years at the school, and even though she told me one Halloween that the electronic bat pin I was sporting (its wings moved when you turned the knob!) was “evil,” her chocolate peanut butter bars made up for everything. She could have thrown me in the river, and I would have sworn that she didn’t mean it. No one who produced those squares could ever mean harm.
I later learned that the bars were really nothing but a layer of sweetened peanut butter mixed with graham crackers topped with a layer of milk chocolate mixed with margarine. I think. But the resulting taste bud nirvana actually had third-grade me imagining slow-motion backstrokes through swimming pools of melty chocolate and Reese’s peanut butter.
Mrs. Ultis’s chocolate peanut bars were the first food item that ever made me see red. As soon as I sat down in the cafeteria on days those bars were served, my ultimate goal was to find out how many were at my table and go about procuring as many as possible for myself. I would eye the dessert section on each partitioned melamine tray, assessing the various sizes of of my classmates’ peanut butter bars. The most effective method I came up with was to distract people into eating everything else on their trays–I would even offer someone my roll or something–to try to fill them up before they even got to the dessert. Then I had to be so available in those last moments, “Hey, are you gonna eat that?” You had to know the exact moment at the end of lunch when people were definitely finished–you did NOT want to get turned down and have the whole table knowing your motives.
But the best assaults started in the line. I would badger those I knew weren’t into peanut butter bars (freaks) to order one anyway and hand it over. I would convince them that the alternative Ranger bars were dry and unappealing. Gross! Those Ranger bars look like dirt! I would never eat that dog food. Hey, but if you get a peanut butter bar, I could take yours. You know, just if you don’t want it or something… ::kicks foot nonchalantly::
The greatest challenge was keeping cool, not letting everyone else know how badly I needed their bars.
Skip ahead to the lunch bell ringing and me shoving as many remaining, half-munched bars as I could down my throat, wrapping them in napkins and stowing them in my pleated khaki pockets.
As I mentioned, I’m pretty sure those bars were packed with butter and graham crackers, and since I’ve been on a gluten-free and also kind of an accidental vegan kick, I decided to try to replicate (or at least imitate) those bars using dates. It worked with the pecan pie anyway. The result is more sophisticated–very peanutty and rich. They’re sweet without tasting fruity (the dates taste more like caramel than prunes), and the chocolate topping makes them more like candy bars than dessert squares. Chewier than the original, with deeper flavor, these are sure to satisfy those grown ups who haven’t gotten over their sweet tooths. They’re not Mrs. Ultis’s, but they’re hitting the spot.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Squares (GF, Vegan)
Makes an 8 x 8 dish of bars
2 cups unsalted peanuts, toasted
1 cup unsweetened, flaked coconut
2 cups pitted dates
1 teaspoon coconut oil
3 Tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup dark chocolate chips
1. Toast peanuts in a 375 F oven for 5-10 minutes. For some odd reason, I used raw peanuts, so I had to spend some time getting the shells off (they flake off when toasted).
2. In food processor, blitz coconut and toasted peanuts until a grainy purée forms. Add dates, 1 teaspoon coconut oil, honey, and sea salt. Continue to purée until the mixture is smooth and begins rolling into a ball. If it’s too dry and won’t mix, add water a few Tablespoons at a time. Taste for seasoning, adding honey and salt to taste if desired. Press mixture into a flat layer in a plastic-lined 8 x 8 dish. Store in freezer while preparing chocolate.
3. Meanwhile, gradually heat chocolate chips in a double boiler (place a glass/heatproof bowl over a saucepan of boiling water, making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl). When chocolate is melted, let cool slightly, then pour over the peanut layer. Return to freezer for 1 hour.
4. To cut, allow to return to room temperature, turn upside down on a cutting board (chocolate side down), and slice, being careful of the cracking chocolate. Store bars in the refrigerator, and serve at room temperature, removing them 20-30 minutes before serving.