Matrimonial Cake that Granny used to make. Whether it’s Canadian or Scottish, the result is just as delicious: dates sandwiched in an oat shortbread crumble crust. Plus ideas where it got its name.
I’ve baffled even myself as to why I haven’t made these oaty date squares until recently. Granny called the recipe “Matrimonial Cake” and it was my personal favourite of all of my childhood baking with her and Auntie Shirley in Musselburgh. There was only one problem and so it comes with a warning to you: it’s so blooming addictive!
By now, if I’m able to control myself like the French women with sumptuous Parisian macarons, tartlets, buttery financiers, Madeleines, Mille-feuilles and éclairs (all in my book, Teatime in Paris), plus the likes of palets bretons butter biscuits, I can also safely make Granny’s Matrimonial Cake and leave it sitting in the box for up to a week.
It was wonderful to be back in Scotland celebrating Lindsay and Eddie’s wedding in Edinburgh.
My cousin, Lindsay, is the life and soul of every family party and at Christmas time, before you know it after Auntie Catherine lights up her homemade Figgy Pudding with brandy, there’s no snoozing by the fire; you can pretty much guarantee being put into a team as Lindsay puts on the entertainment for the rest of the evening with a whole variety of party games, quizzes and prizes. Eddie, you’re in for a most fun-loving life together and wish you both matrimonial bliss for a long, healthy and happy vie à deux en amoureux.
As they say in Scotland, “lang may yer lum reek” (long may your chimney smoke)!
Back home in France – as the honeymooners had found the sunshine – we were unexpectedly snowed in. For the first time in five years, Paris was briefly coated in a giant duvet of snow and with the girls’ lycée closed, it meant I turned to Granny’s Black Book of Scottish Recipes for our golden sunshine in the cosy kitchen.
Thinking of the wedding, it had to be Matrimonial Cake! As the recipe calls for cups, I’ve double- checked the quantities in more modernised measurements in grams (but also included ounces and cups as a guide). As always, I’ve reduced the sugar slightly to make this healthy.
Why is it called Matrimonial Cake?
Goodness knows why the recipe is called “Matrimonial Cake”. Do you know of its origins? If you do, then please leave a comment below this post – I’d love to hear from you! All I know is that it’s popular in Canada, with some Canadians mentioning that the recipe originally came from Scotland.
This is when I wish I could have asked Granny tons of questions today, as this recipe probably has a lot more to it than meets the eye. All I know is that before life with Grandpa, she’d left Scotland and lived in Canada for about 3 years with a most adventurous life as nanny to five children of a business tycoon of a canning factory, originally from Kinlochleven in Scotland. Mr & Mrs Stewart loved entertaining and while travelling in their private plane, Granny had full control of their children, taking them on holiday, baking, sewing etc. and keeping up with the glamorous life.
When she baked these date squares with us, who knows what was running in her mind of memories? Questions were taboo back in these days but knowing just this now, I’d be dying to know the children’s names. Were they named after her own 5 children later: Ronald, Shirley, Irene, June and Catherine?
So, Matrimonial Cake looks like it came from her previous life in Canada. Its name is probably just because it was served at weddings at some time. It’s ideal for a winter wedding, as dates are easy to keep in store. My theory is that it’s simply so deliciously addictive that it had to be kept for weddings or special occasions – what do you think?
Whatever its origins, this Matrimonial Cake is just as addictive as I remember it and Lucie is pleading we make it again. What’s more, there are plenty more goûter (teatime) recipes to choose from.
Matrimonial Cake: The Recipe
Granny mentions using lemon juice so I’m sticking with it – and even added a bit more which made the date paste turn a bit pinkish in colour but I loved this, as it ended up being rather appropriate for Valentine’s Day, too. I see in other Canadian recipes that they use orange juice instead plus even some zest but I prefer keeping it simple as I remember it. If you feel some zest coming on, then go for it!
Once the delicious shortbread-like oat crumble is pressed in to the bottom of the tin and spread with the date paste, just drop on the crumble topping and only gently pat it down so that the effect is still a bit crumbly on top.
Granny didn’t use much crumble on top (if you like a lot then increase the crumble recipe but the magic is the recipe below) which meant that you could still see the date nectar underneath and the crumble was more of a slightly sparse hint – which is why we craved even more.
Don’t have dates for Matrimonial Cake?
No worries if you don’t have dates – although it’s still best with them. Make a different matrimonial cake with:
- prunes and add some orange zest (I have a prune, orange & Armagnac recipe for macarons in my first book, Mad About Macarons!)
- spread on sweetened chestnut & vanilla paste (Clément Faugier or Sabaton), known as Crème de Marron. See more about chestnuts. Most top patisseries in Paris also sell them in jars.
More Recipes with Dates from the Pantry
If you love dates, then try these recipes on a date theme:
- Healthy flapjacks (with fruit and nuts);
- Moist Date and Apple Bran Muffins, more inspiration from Granny’s recipes;
- Sticky toffee pudding with apple;
- Snowballs (coconut no-bake bites),
- Vegetarian mincemeat for mince pie macarons and more. Help yourself!
Matrimonial Cake - Oaty Shortbread Date Squares
- 255 g (9 oz/2 cups) Pitted dates either in a block or separate in packets
- 110 ml (4 fl oz/½ cup) boiling water
- 1 tbsp soft light brown sugar (optional)
- 1 lemon juice of lemon only
- 110 g (4 oz/½ cup) butter (unsalted) softened
- 100 g (3.5 oz/½ cup) soft light brown sugar
- 90 g (3 oz/1 cup) porridge oats
- 120 g (4 oz/1 cup) plain flour all-purpose
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 good pinch salt (fleur de sel)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (or vanilla powder)
For the Date Filling:
- In a saucepan, cook together all the ingredients except the lemon juice. Cook gently until soft (about 20 minutes). It's ready when the dates soften into a paste. (If you prefer having a perfectly smooth paste, then blitz it for a few seconds in a food processor.) Set aside to cool then add the lemon juice.
For the Oat Shortbread Crumble:
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/360°F/Gas 4 and grease a baking tin (I use a 27x19cm tin) with either butter or even better, use a non-stick tin.
- Cream the butter and sugar together either by hand using a wooden spoon or better, in a food mixer/processor.
- Add oats, flour, soda and vanilla until well combined.
- Press no more than half of the mixture into the greased baking tin - either with your fingers or using a flat spatula to make the bottom layer even and thin. Spread on the date paste using a spatula and smooth it out until even.
- Top with the oaty shortbread crumbs and gently pat it on top to keep it in place but not too much - it's better to have a crumbly look to the light topping.
- Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the oats are lightly toasted.
- Cool on a wire rack then place in the fridge for about 30 minutes, remove from the tin and cut into squares - or bars, if you prefer.
Have you made this recipe? Please leave a rated review below – it means the world. Thank you!
If it’s Scottish recipes you’re after, see my Macaroon Bar snowballs, my French iced parfait twist to a Honey and Raspberry Cranachan dessert and fluffy cheese scones.
Jill, this is a family favorite for my family. I’m from Canada and the story from my grandma and mother is that this cake was made by young women to show their beaus they could bake. To make really good matrimonial cake, there are several steps that could be difficult and if you couldn’t master them your chances of getting a marriage proposal would diminish. If you made it well, a proposal would quickly follow. In the central provinces of Canada food was a big deal. You often fed many workers during harvesting etc and word got out about who could cook and who didn’t. Workers would hurry through those jobs where the woman wasn’t a great cook.
Love this Nancy – thank you so much for sharing this story. This is the first I’ve heard about showing you could really cook well. Have a lovely festive season.
Its called matrimonial cake because “you have to take the rough with the smooth “
Absolutely love this, Pat. Thanks for sharing x
I was just looking to see if there was a recipe that matched my Grandma’s and found your post. Her name was Peggy(Margaret) and was Canadian, and her Mom was born in Scotland- I have her handwritten recipe- Matrimonial Cake, and it looks very close to yours.
That’s wonderful to hear and thanks for coming here to tell me, Carey. I hope you try the recipe and tell me what you think, compared to that of your Grandma, Peggy. Isn’t that amazing that you also have the Canadian and Scottish connection with this recipe?
Hello Jill – I love your recipes and conversations. I am also a Franco-Scot living in Libourne now, but in France (Paris) for more than 40 years. This is a recipe our family have always made, ever since we lived in Winnipeg for 3 years – so definitely Canadian/Scottish. I always “knew” that it was called matrimonial cake because of the quantity of dates – presumably leading up to matrimony ! A very un-French recipe at first sight, but I’ve never met a French person who didn’t love it ……. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Ann
Hello Ann – how lovely to hear from you and thank you for that beauty on quantity of dates leading to matrimony. Hadn’t heard that one – that’s brilliant! So glad you popped in and do join in the more French recipes and articles if you have time. Sending you and your family best of wishes in lovely Libourne. Cheers and Santé!
Can mincemeat be substituted for prunes
I’m sure it can, Brenda, although I dare say it will end up being a different name to Matrimonial Cake. Let me know how you get on!
Matrimonial cake my granny told was called so because in marriage you took the rough with the smooth!!
I’ve made it for years,my memory is shorter than it used to be and my cook book is in a box in the garage having recently moved!!Thankyou for the recipe.
What a lovely story – thank you for sharing that with us. I’m so happy I’ve helped out with this recipe, Patricia.
P.S. I’ve used stewed Saskatoon berries for the filling with rave reviews
Thanks so much for sharing your insights to Matrimonial Cake, Pat, and for your previous message. Now I’m dying to try Saskatoon berries. Sounds intriguing!
In Western Canada, pre 1950, this was the most popular treat for weddings and bridal showers – hence the name. In other parts of Canada, it’s just called “date squares”. When my brother worked on the oil rigs, some evenings he’d announce “I’m going to make some matrimonial cake.” Westerners would cheer, while others would say “HUH WHAT?”
When I was old enough, my mother told me it was called matrimonial cake because it was a date between two sheets.
Thanks so much for this recipe! My Mom used to make this when I was a child in Canada, but all I had was the ingredient list, which also includes lemon, but no measurements. Merry Christmas!
So happy that you’ve now got the measurements to make it yourself again. Merry Christmas to you and all your loved ones.
TIP: Boil the dates in day old coffee instead of water. The coffee takes a lot of the sweetness out of the dates and adds a nice subtle background flavor that goes wonderfully with these squares.
Thanks for sharing your tip, Bryan – I love this!
Sounds like like a good idea to use coffee. I may try it.
The recipe I use came to Canada from Scotland with my greatGrandma. Each generation of daughters has copied her cookbook. I copied Mom’s over 65 years ago.
That’s so precious, Helen. So glad you’re passing it on to your next family generations. Have a delicious 2021!
I’ve heard it was called Matrimonial Cake because it was so simple it was the first thing a bride could make
Lovely – thanks for that, Kathy x
It’s called matrimonial cake because of the smooth base and the rough topping….. you have to take the rough with the smooth!!!
Love it! Heard of this one before – sounds like a perfect name for it 🙂 Thanks for popping in.
My Canadian grandma made these. She always said it was called Matrimonial Cake because it was made with dates!
That’s so lovely! Thanks for popping in and telling us your story, Laura x
My mom told me they were date squares before marriage
Matrimonial soon after
We called it grumble cake
Thx for recipe I’m going to make some grumble
Absolutely love this, Charlotte! Too funny, your grumble cake. Thanks for sharing x
I’ve seen you sharing this recipe, so how did I miss leaving a comment?! Oh dear, maybe I was traveling? I’ve got everything to make these, but have had an idea as I have an inordinate number of jars of jam! I’m thinking of replacing the dates with jam? If I make them, will let you know if it works as if I don’t start using my jam soon, we’ll be in trouble! Thanks for sharing a lovely recipe, Jill!
Hehe, replace the dates and it’s no longer matrimonial cake 🙂 I know you don’t like dates but it’s like sticky toffee pudding – it’s not really datey as such; it’s the consistency that’s memorable. By all means on the jam (let’s do what we can!) but if you have juicy prunes then I’m sure that would be closer to the real McCoy.
Well, they’re in the oven! Looking and smelling fab!! Thanks, Jill!
Well that is brilliant! I thought you didn’t like dates, though? 😉
I misplaced Mum’s recipe & was happy to find yours. I’m another Canadian who grew up with matrimonial cake as a staple in my lunch. Mum made it quickly with just a touch of lemon juice–no rind or orange juice. No doubt the recipe nanded down from her Scottish ancestors, they came to Ontario from Inverness-shire in 1830.
Imagine having this as a staple for lunch? I’m in love! Thanks for popping in and sharing your story. It’s incredible the number of Scottish-Canadian connections there are. Have a delicious weekend.
Love Matrimonial Cake. Grew up having it and now almost 80 I still make it. A panic in the oven right now!
I used my Mom’s recipe. She copied her Mother’s cookbook and Grandma had copied her Mother’s. My Great Grandparents came to Canada fro Scotland in about 1865. The cookbook came with them and the Matrimonial Cake recipe was in that book so the recipe goes back that far to Scotland. They came to Quebec and very shortly after that moved to Ontario. My Grandmother left home and came to Saskatchewan. A copy of her Mother’s cookbook came with her. She married my Grandfather in Saskatoon in 1910.
Thank you so much for popping in and sharing this lovely family history with us, Helen. How wonderful to have so much knowledge of your own family history between Scotland and Canada. Wishing you a most wonderful Christmas and all the best for a most healthy and delicious 2020!
Hi Jill. My great-grandmother’s ancestors emigrated from England to Connecticut in the 1600’s, then on to Saskatchewan in the 1800’s. Eventually, my great-grandparents and grandparents moved West to Vancouver, where I was born. When I was growing up, one of our Christmas baking traditions with Grandma and Great-Grandma, was Matrimonial Cake, along with Butter/Currant Tarts, and Date Bread. I am currently visiting my daughter in Pittsburgh, away from my recipes at home in San Diego, and a friend in Alaska remembers Matrimonial Cake from our childhood, and asked for the recipe, so that is what brought me to your website. I’m not sure about the amounts of sugar, and we never used lemon juice or any other flavoring in the filling, but the rest of your recipe looks like what I remember. Last time I made it was probably about 10 years ago. There was an ancestor from Scotland before the English ones, but that’s where the trail stops, so far, on ancestry dot com. I too, wish that I’d asked more questions before it was too late. Also, being an American now, I’d appreciate the measurements in cups. Thank you.
Lovely to have you join me here through matrimonial cake, Sue! That’s so impressive to be able to go back to the 17th century in your family line-up. I do hope you’ve got photos too, something that I realise now that’s difficult to find. As for measurements, I don’t believe in cups, I’m afraid. I do, however, give recipe quantities in ounces for you over the pond as when baking (especially French patisserie like we do here), we use digital scales which gives consistent results each time. I can’t encourage you enough to bake using scales by weight. See my article about baking using digital scales, which are inexpensive – and perfect for Christmas!
Have a most lovely, delicious time with your daughter making recipes that rekindles childhood and happy memories. Thanks for popping in to say hello!
My American mother from Grand Rapids, Michigan, told us that Matrimonial Cake was called this because it was “two crumbs brought together by a date” ! Idea: Uncooked oatmeal porridge. Equal parts rolled oats and cold water. Optional sweetening with honey or brown sugar. ( Suggest 1 cup oats, 1 cup water, 1 teaspoon honey. ) Mix in a tight container, overnight in fridge or cool camping tent or car. . READY TO EAT in 12 hrs. or 24. Regular “slow” rolled oats have more texture and mouth feel. When oats are rolled, they are heat treated enough that they are digestible.without further cooking. Handy to know when hiking or really busy. Nutritious and economical.
Love the reason behind the name for Matrimonial Cake, Eleanor. Too funny.
Thanks also for sharing your uncooked porridge for camping or when on the move. Jx
Hi Jill, my aunt said it was called Matrimonial cake as you had the rough with the smooth.
Absolutely LOVE this! Thanks for sharing, Tina. I think we need a dose of matrimonial cake during these strange times at home…
The Scottish wedding looked like a lot of fun. I love to see men in kilts. The recipe for matrimonial cake is so appropriate Jill. This has to be next on my baking list.
There’s something so dashing about men in kilts!
This recipe has been a staple for years with my Canadian family.
I always thought the cake was called Matrimony cake because of all the dates. 🙂
Nice one on the dates for the name – thanks so much for your feedback on the Canadian side. For us growing up in Scotland, this was something extra special from Granny!
I grew up on the Canadian Prairies and Matrimonial Cake was served at every church Tea. I always thought the cake was described as Matrimonial since it was a very easy desert for a new bride to make. It required no sifting, beating and careful baking. Usually wedding cakes in much of Canada were fruit cakes and my mother Alice baked the best which was also served for Christmas.
I use about 700 grams of dates, a little orange juice and zest in my date mixture and no sugar. I find the dates are sweet enough. The sugar is in the oat-flour mixture.
You’ve no idea how thrilled I am to hear from you and to hear your feedback on the recipe from the Canadian point of view. To be honest, I’d heard that it was an easy dessert for brides but didn’t know if it was true so I’m happy to hear from you on this! Thanks also for the tips on the recipe. I agree on the sugar and have now added, as a result, that the tablespoon of sugar in the date mix is optional. Thank you for popping by to share your Matrimonial Cake expertise.
Hi Jill. I was looking at the original written recipe and it shows 1 cup of oats, but you only show 3 oz on the typed copy, is that because when you made it you changed the quantity? I want to make this anyway, will see how it is with your recipe first.
You’re quite right to check, Dianah. Yes, this is correct. I developed this recipe of Granny’s slightly and especially moved away from cups. As with all recipes, I much prefer weighing out ingredients in grams so that we can all have consistent results. Enjoy the recipe!
Hi Jill, well according to sources these date squares actually were from a Jewish cookbook in 1871. The Canadians then claimed the “oaty date” squares in the early 1900’s. After that in the 1930’s the Americans were given permission to use the recipe in a newspaper article in Ohio. They were referred to as Matrimonial Cakes and it was said to be from two things according to the Jewish community. The expenses incurred buying flour so oats were used and the other was about marriage being a little rough from beginning to end with a sweetness in the middle. That’s all I know. The Old Northern England had a Matrimonial Cake but it was a large round cake with currents between the layers then covered in sugar. I’m just thrilled because they are sooo DELICIOUS! I like dates and oats period so it’s a win win for me. The original recipe was almost identical to yours but with 2 cups of almost everything to start with and was cooked over a “slow fire and baked in a low oven”. Hope this helps. P. S. The Scots also laid claim to it around the same time as the Canadians..lol..thank you for sharing ?
Oh my goodness. Thank you ever so much for your history of the Matrimonial Cake, Bea. That’s fascinating! Isn’t that funny about the Scots, too? Absolutely thrilled you found out this info on my favourite date squares.
Read the comment about Matrimonial Cake in. Jewish Cookbook. My great grandparents came to Canada from Scotland prior to that – about 1865. They weren’t newly weds either. The recipe for Matrimonial Cake was in Grandma’s cookbook. She had been making it or years at that point so I think it probably originated in Scotland.
We were always told the name came from there being two crumbs who came tigon a date.
This brings back so many great memories Jill – mum loved baking and I am so so glad you have her “black book” and finding it so useful – mum would be so proud that you are carrying on her cooking skills. Jill the way you present all your the recipes to make them easy to prepare and the photos showing the end results is such a talent and please continue with your good cooking as it is very much appreciated. Loved seeing you at Lindsay and Eddies’ wedding looking super. Auntie Shirley x
You’ve no idea how happy I am to hear from you here. Thank you for your lovely words of motivation. It’s a lot of work here in the engine room but hope it’s all worth it to share all my favourite recipes. It has been great fun going through the Black Book – and that included the non-recipe parts with sewing pattern cuttings in there, too! Now, I have a problem with shortbread, as there must be at least 6 different recipes!
Catherine and Kathleen were the names of the children as far as I remember. Irene means peace – she was born as war started and June was named after the month. I wrote that recipe in the black book when I was a child and many others too but from where, I don’t know.
This sounds like something I’d love! I can almost taste them! I’d love to know why they’re called matrimonial squares too. I’ve never heard of that term.
Thanks, Cynthia. Let’s hope that we see the light on the name soon but in the meantime – yes, they’re delicious. Hope you make them!
Lucky you having those treasured recipes! I love oat bars and with a date filling DOES sound addictive!!
I know I’m so lucky, Liz – especially as we’re a big family and so feel so privileged to have her recipe book, full of newspaper cuttings (nothing even to do with recipes) and notes to herself. So precious!
I have a similar recipe from my mom and that i do at holidays and anniversaries! I use any fruit with seeds(dates, strawberries, blackberries)and walnuts! The seeds, oats, walnuts represent abundance &prosperity! This is the fav of my daughters and i prepare it using 1/2 of dough, scraped !! The perfect sweet squares represent a perfect sweet life! For you, Jill with love and admiration, Gee x
That sounds absolutely divine, Gee. Thanks for your kind words. Tell me, did your Mum call her version with fruit and walnuts Matrimonial Cake?