Monday, March 15, 2010

Crunchy On The Inside

Recently I've been trying to take more of a problem-solving approach to life here on the cul-de-sac. Case in point: we seem to always run late for school in the mornings, and it's a major stressor for everyone -- me carping at the boys to get dressed, find their backpacks, finish their breakfasts, no really I mean it put clothes on right NOW. I swear the average school morning shaves an entire week off my lifespan, and the boys don't enjoy it either.

One thing that slows us down, I know, is that my insistence on a solid, nutritious breakfast, and preferably a hot one. Pancakes are relatively quick, and so is oatmeal when I remember to soak the danged oats the night before, but when you're working on getting everyone fed, dressed and out the door in less than 30 minutes, scratch-cooked breakfasts are just going to make us late for school. Again.

So I've been playing around with the idea of breakfast bars -- whole grains, fruit and protein in portable form. Add a travel cup of milk and you've got a car seat-friendly first meal of the day. I certainly didn't invent the idea -- the supermarket is rife with kiddie go-foods, from cereal bars coated with a white substance meant to suggest milk to slurpable tubes of technicolor yogurt containing more sugar per serving than a Coke.

Since I've long been concerned with organic and whole foods, I've also often been mocked for being a hippie: "You're SO crunchy," someone once told me. I don't wear Birkenstocks or tie-dyed anything, and never really counterculture identified (though I must confess to attending a few Grateful Dead shows) so I'm not sure why how I eat makes me a hippie when I seem to lack most of the other flower child cultural markers. Whatever, man.

Thus I think it's funny that I've only been making my own granola for a couple of years, and this is my first shot at granola bars -- granola being the standard culinary petard used to hoist hippies, I guess. Maybe I've been crunchy on the inside all along.

No matter my demographic, I would benefit as much as the guys from a healthy portable breakfast, if this morning's regrettable trip to Safeway is any indication. Today I had time for coffee but nothing more on a morning totally thrown off by the Daylight Savings time change, which sprang forward hard on my ass. After dropping the guys at school -- on time, though just barely -- I swung by the grocery store and was blindsided by English muffin lust. Safeway's got a buy-one, get one free sale on Thomas' products this week and, upon entering this particular store, shoppers are greeted by an enormous English muffin display.

I've worshiped at the Church of Michael Pollan for nearly four years now, and we eat as traditionally and seasonally as we possibly can. However, English muffins happen to be one of the industrial foods I've missed most -- for many years I breakfasted daily and happily on a toasted English muffin, slathered with butter and marmalade -- and this morning, confronted in my hunger-weakened state by the muffin mountain, I threw two boxes of whole wheat muffins into the cart. It wasn't til I got home that it dawned on me to check the ingredients list, which was appallingly long: thirty-eight separate ingredients (counting "mono- and di-glycerides" as two). Holy multisyllabic industrial food additives, Batman! I still toasted one up and ate it slathered with butter, but the joy was gone. English muffins are so over for me now.

Fortunately I have evolved a really, really good breakfast bar recipe. I played around with all sorts of approaches, including blending in tofu for extra protein and moisture, but ended up with a more or less classic granola bar. It's dense and chewy, not too sweet, and as chock-full of fruit and fiber as you want to make it -- you can add up to three cups of dried fruit, nuts, seeds, whatever you got, or none at all (though IMHO you're crazy if you don't, those tasty little treat nuggest are the best part!), it's all good. My favorite combination so far is 2/3 cup each dried fruit-juice-sweetened cranberries, walnuts and large-shred (flaked) organic coconut. (Anybody knows a reliable place to find flaked coconut minus propylene glycol and sulfites, please to let me know).

Cul-de-Sac Breakfast Bars

1 cup quick rolled oats (not instant)
2/3 cup old fashioned oats
1/3 cup whole wheat or unbleached flour
1/4 cup hippie sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
up to 3 cups coarsely chopped dried fruit, nuts and/or seeds*

6 tablespoons melted butter (can substitute some or all of this with coconut oil)
1/4 cup honey or maple syrup
2 tablespoons golden syrup** or molasses
1 tablespoon water

Oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8x8 pan.

Mix together all the dry ingredients plus any additions you're adding. In a separate bowl whisk together butter, syrups and water. Toss wet with dry until evenly moistened. Firmly press the mixture into the prepared pan, packing it down and distributing it evenly.

Bake 40-45 minutes, until the edges are brown. The center will seem underbaked, but will firm up as it cools. Cool completely in pan on a cooling rack before slicing. To store -- not that these will hang around long -- wrap squares individually or keep in airtight container.

* Suggestions: any kind of nuts, of course, and chopped dried fruit like apricots or prunes. Also sunflower seeds, pepitas, sesame seeds, wheat germ, flax meal, even chocolate chips (cherries, walnuts and dark chocolate chunks are a pretty amazing combination if you're loose on your definition of acceptable breakfast foods).

**Lyle's Golden Syrup is my new favorite obscure ingredient! It's a British baking item that is a useful substitute for corn syrup. Genuine golden syrup like Lyle's is made from cane sugar, and has a marvelous caramel flavor that really comes out in these granola bars. (There are knockoff brands that mix corn syrup with molasses; technically this is treacle, not golden syrup, so be sure to read the label). For a darker, richer flavor you can of course use molasses. You could also substitute King syrup, or of course just use corn syrup. Golden syrup is sold at many grocery stores.


Murph said...

Awesome post - I'll definitely have to try this. Do they end up solidly crunchy or is it crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside? Wasn't sure how literal the post title was.

molen: not nearly as fun word-of-the-day

Michelle Gienow said...

Mmmmm, moist and chewy throughout with slighty crispy edges...going to go eat another one right now...