Monday, November 24, 2008

Everyday Granola

I haven't baked in a long time. The last few months have been an uphill slog in terms of energy and motivation to get anything accomplished... although sometimes it also felt downhill, in a bad way. Like a heavily-loaded cart was behind me, threatening to run me over with its weight.

So I'm now seeking solutions to lighten the load, or increase my strength and ability to hold the cart up behind me, to keep it from running me over. One of the first places that brings me strength is my morning breakfast. After a long warm night of being curled up between a heavy comforter and a soft pillow, I need something truly inviting to coax me out of my downy berth. A french press filled with strong, dark (preferably African) coffee spiked with sweet cinnamon and topped off with a generous splash of Avalon cream usually does the trick. Then, a bowl of hearty, slightly sweet, spicy, crunchy granola is just the strength I need for the day.

I've tried a few granola recipes, but the best granola I've made and tasted is the granola that happens to come into being when I'm particularly in touch with the season. In the late summer my friend E. gave me a bag of granola that included dried Moreno cherries, pistachios, and was sweetened by brown rice syrup. But now that we're headed resolutely for winter (and this week is Thanksgiving in the States), I'm craving granola that is creamy, and definitely spicy.

If you, like me, appreciate being able to make your own flavors and permutations of everything, then it's most helpful to know the ratio of the kinds of ingredients, rather than specific ingredients to which you are bound. For example, muffins are about 50 percent moisture, so to a cup of buttermilk, or yogurt, or applesauce, you add only enough flour and egg to hold it together. This recipe is kind of like that. Oats are always a base ingredient. Then, some fat, some sweetener, spices, and whatever nutmeats or seeds you have on hand. Then everything is toasted in the oven slowly to bring it all to a golden perfection. Topped with some old-fashioned yogurt from a local creamery, or a splash of cream... there's nothing better to bring you into the day.

Everyday Granola

3 cups of whole rolled oats (look for oats which still have their oat-like texture)
1/2 cup to 1 cup of any combination of: whole wheat flour, wheat germ, wheat bran, flaxseed meal, powdered milk, or anything to hold the spices to the oats

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of any of the following: nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom
AND if you're feeling adventurous....
1/8 teaspoon of something spicier: cayenne or finely ground pepper

3 to 3 1/2 cups of chopped nutmeats and/or seeds (almonds, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans... sunflower, flax, sesame, pepitas, pumpkin... use your imagination! I usually combine at least three or four kinds of nuts and seeds)

1/2 cup of melted butter or oil (canola, peanut, olive... just make sure that if it's something with a pronounced flavor, like olive, you cut it with something milder)
1/2 to 3/4 cup of sweetener (honey, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, brown sugar... DON'T use plain white corn syrup or white sugar. In addition to being overly processed, it will lose some caramelly flavor.)

up to 1 cup of dried fruit of your choice (berries, cherries, apricots, apples, currants... or, if you must, raisins)

Heat your oven to to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, combine the oats and all of the dry ingredients: flours, ground flax, salt, spices, and nutmeats/seeds. And, if you are using dry sugar instead of liquid honey or another sweetener, add the sugar here. Give it all a good stir to make sure the spices don't all fall to the bottom. Get your hands into that bowl. It's good for you, and for your granola.

In a large glass measuring cup, heat the oil and your sweetener of choice in the microwave. Give it a good stir with a fork or small whisk to combine as best you can.

Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients, and stir until it is all coated well. This is where you will get your first breath of the spices coming alive.

Pour out half of your granola onto a large RIMMED cookie sheet (if you use a flat cookie sheet with no edges you risk losing most of your granola in the process), and spread it out in an even layer. Break up any large clumps.

Bake it for 25-30 minutes total. Every ten minutes, pull out your granola and stir it with a spatula so that none of the granola gets burned. The third time you pull it out and stir, gauge if it needs another full ten minutes. It will usually need another 5-6 minutes.

Once it looks nice and toasty brown, put the granola on another COOL baking sheet to cool. It will crisp up remarkably once it cools. Store in an airtight container, and keep it dry and cool (i.e. NOT in your trunk in the sun on a summer's day... I speak from experience here) until you eat it.

If this batch of granola lasts in your home longer than a week, I take it all back.

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