Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Worthy Reward, or, Homemade Granola

When I tell people they laugh, or give me quizzical look, like I’m slightly nuts but in an endearing sort of way. “Really?” they reply, admiringly but somewhat incredulously. Once they’ve realized I am quite serious, the curious questions begin—“So, what exactly do you put in it—besides oats?” The truth is, I’ve been making my own homemade granola for several years now. I never knew there was such a mystery behind the stuff, because even though recipes for granola often have long lists of ingredients, it is deceptively simple to prepare. There are, I assure you, others out there that make their own granola, for once they've tasted the results of their efforts, they almost never go back to the overly-sweet or too dry store-bought varieties, unless desperate or without a kitchen to bake in (both situations, I should add, in which I have found myself at one point in time). There is just something that happens to oats, when they are doused with honey and oil and toasted until golden, satisfying and wholesome, but indulgent and at the same time.

It began with a photocopied recipe a family friend had given me from the Café Beaujolais cookbook, by Margaret Fox and John Bear. The recipe was for “Suzanne’s Famous Cashew Granola,” and I had wanted the recipe because I used to buy the Beaujolais granola at their local bakery. Though, being the somewhat ambitious, aspiring young baker that I was, I wanted to learn how to make it myself, which would not only save my parents hard-earned money but also gave me something to do in my spare time. Most likely, the book was published at a time when granola was still considered a hippie food, and anyone that made their own was seen as slightly crazy or nostalgic for the “Crunchy” days of their youth. Suzanne, Margaret explains in the recipe’s introduction, was the librarian at the Mendocino Middle School, the school I attended. Later, I remembered Suzanne not only as a librarian but also as my 7th grade Science teacher. Little did I know at the time that she was so skilled at making granola, and was developing a recipe that would catch the eye of former restaurateur Margaret Fox! She was neither crazy nor a hippie, at least as far as I could tell. Anyhow, apparently she used to work at the restaurant, where they used to
serve breakfast, and so it became the birthplace of her legendary granola.

Yet since my initial forays into granola making, my recipe has changed somewhat. Though I still and will always be indebted to Suzanne, it has become my own creation, so to speak. I like that. It is really the first recipe I have really made my own, after going through several incarnations. In fact, I am still working on it, still trying new ingredients and consulting new recipes with a can’t-help-it curiosity. Along the way, I have consulted Heidi Swanson’s recipe for “Grain-ola” from her book Super Natural Cooking, as well as the excellent version found in The Esalan Cookbook, sharing the recipe for their house granola. In the food blogs and food magazines that the read like Bon Appétit, I’m always on the lookout for a good granola recipe, even just because it reminds why I make it over and over again, having tea while it bakes, the oven wafting aromas of honey and toasted nuts through the house.

What I have found present in almost all granola recipes is the encouragement to play with the recipe a little bit. Though I admit the one have been making for a while now I quite happy with, I can’t help but try different nuts/fruits/oils/sweeteners if the opportunity arrives (i.e. my granola stash runs dry). Sometimes I’ll even add the zest of an orange or two to the oats, or some maple syrup with the honey. If I have a sack of flaxseeds on hand, it always seemed like a good way to use them, so sometimes I add a few tablespoons along with the sesame and sunflowers. You really can’t go wrong when dealing with oats, and honey and coconut—toasted until golden and crunchy.

I always like to always have at least a jar of it around, and usually, I do. My mother and sister make special requests for it when I’m home from college on breaks, and I’ve been known to make an extra batch for my sister when I come and visit her, too. My father has never been a morning-granola-eater, but even he is known to have an “evening snack” consisting of a bowl of granola and milk when the craving strikes. When there’s a stash of it in the cupboard, I like to eat it every morning for breakfast, with some plain yogurt. Some enjoy Greek, but I prefer European-Style in this case, creamy and mild, the perfect accompaniment. Fresh fruit also makes for a lovely addition, especially berries when they’re in season (like the strawberries in the photo), but it’s not entirely necessary.

Homemade Granola

This is the kind of recipe that is endlessly adaptable to ones tastes. Instead of the walnuts I have used whole almonds, and dried cherries instead of cranberries. I discovered the orange-cranberries from Trader Joe’s go quite well with the walnuts, but regular cranberries do just fine, too. Although gathering the ingredients can be quite a demanding pursuit (wheat germ, thankfully, is now easier to find than used to be), a lovely batch of granola will be your reward in the end, which I find worthy enough.

- 4 cups regular, old-fashioned oats
- 1 ½ cups unsweetened shredded coconut
- 2/3 cups raw wheat germ
- 6 tablespoons sunflower seeds
- 6 tablespoons sesame seeds
- ¼ cup canola oil
- ¾ cups mild honey, such as orange blossom (or: ½ cup honey + ¼ cup grade B maple syrup)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or other nut (optional)
- 1 cup dried cranberries or other dried fruit (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300°, setting a rack in the center of the oven. In a large bowl, mix together the oats, coconut, wheat germ, seeds and nuts, then set aside. In a small saucepan over low heat, mix together the honey, oil, vanilla and salt until melted and liquid in consistency. Pour the hot oil/honey mixture over the bowl of oats and thoroughly mix together until incorporated. Spread onto a large rimmed baking sheet and bake for 40-50 minutes, stirring every ten minutes, until golden and toasted. During the last five to ten minutes, take out the granola and add the dried fruit, giving it a quick mix with your spatula to combine (After this point you will want to check the granola often, making sure not to over-toast). When done, remove and let cool completely in the pan. *
Serve with fresh fruit and yogurt or milk.

*If you enjoy clumps in your granola, as I do, a trick I learned is to press firmly down on the granola as soon as you pull it out from the oven. Once cooled, you can break up the sheet that will have formed from the pressing of the oats, and voilà – clumps!

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