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You’d think I’d have more time on my hands now that I’m a student, but if the past two weeks are any indication, you’d be wrong.  I’d forgotten how students don’t really have down time, how you’re constantly shuttling between campus and off-campus, and how all off-campus time is time that could and ideally should be devoted to studying.  I’m not complaining; this is what I wanted, and it’s also going to be over sooner than I think.  It does two things simultaneously, though.  Contrary to my usual breakfast-denying norm, it makes me actually want to have breakfast before morning classes so I can have the energy to think my way through to lunch, and it also cuts the amount of time I have available for fixing and having breakfast.

This means dealing with the problem of the easy-to-grab, on-the-go breakfast I haven’t had to face since my 45-minute commute days.  In those days, it was usually a fancy cereal bar and a latte from the Starbucks on the ground floor of my office building, but I’m also on a student budget now, and more creative and frugal thinking is required here.  What can I make that’s inexpensive, nutritious, portable, and forgiving of being forgotten on the countertop in my rush to catch the bus?

Enter the homemade granola bar.  Start with a whole-grain base, flavor with nuts, fruit and spices as desired, bind it together with something viscous and sticky, and you have healthy portability for pennies per batch.

I used the Cook’s Illustrated version as a springboard, since I’d tried it before, and also because The New Best Recipe is one of the handful of books I allowed myself when the rest went into storage.  Although I wasn’t crazy about the coconut-sesame variation I initially tried, the basic recipe architecture is sound.  For the flavorings, I painstakingly deconstructed the trail mix I had put together for the road trip by combining all the half-empty bags of nuts and dried fruit in the pantry, and which we still had several cups of.  Given that I always end up leaving the cashews behind anyway, I chose to use those up, as well as the dried cranberries.  I added apple pie spice and maple syrup to complement the cranberries.

I also halved the recipe to accommodate the fact that I didn’t have 7 cups of oats, and a full batch would grossly violate my attention span for leftovers anyway.  I’m really quite intolerant of leftovers; for most things, once I’ve eaten it for the third time in a row, I’m done with it.  However good my intentions might be, the reality is that the rest of the batch will molder in the fridge until there’s no choice but to throw it out.  Baked goods get a little bit more leeway, but even with chocolate, four servings is the max no matter how exquisite it might originally have been.

Although it’s not exactly a quick recipe, and there is a certain bother factor in having to pre-toast the oats, the finished bars were definitely worth the Sunday afternoon effort.  They’re crunchy, spicy, compact batons of brain food much tastier than the prepackaged bars, and incredibly budget-friendly besides, especially if you buy the ingredients from the bulk foods aisle.  All I’ve needed to do is fill my commuter mug with hot water and a yerba mate tea bag, grab one of these (and, hopefully, my lunch.  That’s been hit or miss so far), and head out the door.  I call that a success.

Cashew Cranberry Granola Bars
(Adapted from Cooks Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe)
Makes 18 bars

3 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cups roasted cashews
1 teaspoon apple pie spice
4 tablespoons honey
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375 F.  Line a 13×9 quarter sheet pan with foil.

Combine the oats, oil and salt and spread on the prepared sheet.  Bake 20-25 minutes, until the oats are light gold, stirring several times during the process to ensure even browning.  Remove from the oven and lower to 300 F.

While the oats are browning, combine the cranberries, water, 1 tablespoon of the maple syrup, and lemon juice in a small saucepan.  Simmer for 10 minutes, until the cranberries are tender.  Strain the cranberries through a fine mesh strainer, pressing down to extract all the liquid, and set them aside.

Medium-coarsely chop the cashews, by hand or in a food processor. Remove 1/3 cup and chop the remaining nuts to a fine, sandy (but not powdery) texture. Toss the oats, coarse and finely chopped nuts and apple pie spice in a large bowl until well mixed.

In the saucepan previously used for the cranberries, combine the honey, remaining 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, and brown sugar.  Simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the brown sugar has dissolved.  Remove from the heat and add the vanilla.

Stir the honey mixture into the oats until everything is thoroughly coated, then stir in the cranberries.  Spread the granola in an even layer on the foil-lined sheet and press down firmly to compact it well.

Bake 30-45 minutes, until golden brown.  Cool the granola in the sheet on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then lift the slab out by the foil and cut into 18 bars with a sharp chef’s knife.  Remove the foil from each bar and cool them completely on the rack.

Store in airtight containers, or individually wrap for quicker snacking.

Notes:

The reason you chop the nuts into two different textures is that the coarser nuts give you added crunch and help you identify what’s in the bars, and the finely chopped nuts fill the empty spaces between the other granola components to make a nice, tight bar that holds together well.  It may sound like a pointless extra step, but it’s actually of structural importance.

You can really use any nuts and spices you like here, but according to the CI people, raisins won’t work. You need a thick-skinned fruit like cranberries or cherries, or the fruit will shrivel up and scorch.  Having previously made shrapnel biscotti with apricots, I am inclined to take their word for it.

Since this is fitting so neatly into my morning-hating routine, I’m considering experimenting next with hazelnuts, cherries, and possibly a little bit of chocolate and/or coffee, a la Heidi’s power bars.  I may also try adding in some nut butter with the honey.

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