Editor’s Note: Join Sweet July at our Oakland flagship store for a chat and book signing with Tanya Holland. Get your tickets here!
Within California’s rich culinary evolution lies a number of main players—a list that undoubtedly includes Tanya Holland. Her former uptown Oakland restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, has been widely celebrated for its unique take on soul food, with inspirations from Black Southern traditions.
But Holland, also an alumna of Top Chef and a television and podcast host, is continuing to make a mark on the food world that far exceeds her restaurateur endeavors. Her third and latest cookbook, California Soul: Recipes from a Culinary Journey West, which was released last month, is proof of that.
When asked what the name “California Soul” represents, Holland couldn’t provide a simple response, but she gave a confident one. “It embodies qualities that people think of when they think of California—entrepreneurial characteristics of people that come out here,” she answered. “There’s also a [connection to] earth because so much of the product that we consume in the United States is grown here. For me, it’s also soul in terms of having family heritage here, family that migrated west from Louisiana. My soul is connected to this location.”
Alongside 80 seasonal recipes, from collard green tabbouleh to rhubarb upside-down cake, Holland spotlights some of the stories of Black innovators—farmers, winemakers, chefs, writers, artists and beyond—who she believes are helping to define California soul food.
“These are stories that are so untold,” says Holland. “People just don’t understand how rooted African Americans are in California. It definitely wasn’t something really taught in history classes. Food is such a way to stay connected to our history.”
Among the featured names is Sam Cobbs, who runs Sam Cobb Date Farms in Riverside County with his wife Maxine. The book chronicles his journey, from falling in love with tractors while living across the street from open fields in Fresno to being the only Black kid in his Future Farmers of America club to eventually opening up his 75-acre date farm in the southern California desert. Cobbs inspired Holland’s California Date Bar recipe, which she shares with Sweet July below.
“Dates are sort of this ubiquitous ingredient that kind of ends up in a lot of different dishes but is not always featured,” says Holland.
Not unlike the some 15 changemakers spotlighted in the pages of the cookbook, ingredients like dates also earn their shine.
Get Holland’s recipe for California Date Bars below!
Plus: Looking for the perfect wine to pair with this dish? Sweet July’s wine consultant Julia Coney recommends Malbec, and suggests one specifically from Cahors, France. Coney says, “Malbec is largely known as a grape that put Argentina on the wine map, but the grape that originated in southwest France has a completely different style in terms of taste and aromas. With notes of white pepper, cinnamon and aromas of cloves and herbs, this wine works well with sweeter dishes because it doesn’t cancel any of the lush sweetness of the dates.”
Tanya Holland's California Date Bars
1 1/2 cups Medjool dates, pitted
1 cup water
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
2 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
In a saucepan, combine the dates with the water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Turn off the heat and let sit for 15 minutes. Strain the water from the dates, reserving the liquid. Add the dates to a food processor with the vanilla paste, 1 teaspoon of the salt and ¼ cup of the reserved date water. Process until smooth, adding 1 tablespoon of additional date water at a time if the mixture is too thick—it should be the texture of a thick jam.
Line a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper so the paper hangs over the sides of the pan. This will make it easy to lift the bars out of the pan once they’re baked. Spray the parchment with nonstick cooking spray.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and cinnamon. Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add the butter, brown sugar, and honey and mix on medium speed until well combined, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the mixer with a spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until incorporated. Turn off the mixer and add the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until the flour is fully incorporated, scraping down the sides as necessary with a spatula. The dough will be soft. Place half of the dough in the prepared pan and spread evenly with an offset spatula. Carefully spread the date mixture evenly over the top of the dough in the pan. Place the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Remove the pan from the freezer. Take the remaining half of the dough, place dollops of it over the top of the date mixture in the pan, and carefully spread it evenly over the date layer. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes.
- Using the parchment paper, lift the bars out of the pan and place on a wire rack to cool. Cut into twenty-four squares.