Saturday, May 30, 2009

Homemade Granola

It's a beautiful morning here in Mississippi: the sun is shining, the sky is clear, and I woke up to a gorgeous dew on the ground. Not so gorgeous when Mercer came in the house with soaking wet feet, but on a Saturday like this, much is forgivable. I have a long day of work ahead of me. I'm trying to meet a Monday deadline to turn in my Written Comprehensive Exam, the first of my exams that will lead to the dissertation and, finally, the degree. I only have a small amount left to go, but isn't it always toughest to finish a large project when the end is in sight? I keep stalling, making the grocery list or going to get coffee, hoping (subconsciously) that when I get home, the final paragraphs will have written themselves and I can proudly hand it in, for once in my graduate career, on time. Macs are supposed to be awesome, right? Why can't mine finish my exam when I'm not in the room?

Anyway, this exam, along with many other school concerns, is the reason I have been absent for so long. I have not stopped baking, of course, but when I made my pact to bake only on weekends, it never occurred to me that this would leave little time for blogging, especially when all midweek typing was somewhat goal-oriented. (What this goal might be is still up for debate.) I will try in the coming weeks to catch up, but I've also considered simply posting pictures of my last few months in the kitchen and taking requests. See a photo you like? I'll post the recipe. Let me know if this sounds good to you, since as always, I am a bit overwhelmed.

Today, however, I am feeling like anything is possible, which is why I've chosen to post for you my breakfast of champions, my Homemade Granola. It requires little more than the ability to measure (eyeball, really) and toss. Add heat, and you've got yourself a great breakfast dish (or snack) that will make you feel disproportionately proud of yourself (disproportionate to the amount of work you'll put in, I mean). And I especially love that this recipe is infinitely adaptable. Once you learn the method, although it's almost laughable to call it that, as it's really just separating dry, wet, and dried fruit, you can switch out any ingredients you like. I love to add in lots of whole grains like flax, oat bran, etc. to up the nutritional ante. In the past few years, granola's gotten a bad rap for being one of those foods that sounds healthy but isn't. And it's true--most brands in the grocery stores are more fat and corn syrup than health food. But as someone who has committed to baking healthy and eating less white flour, I can tell you that whole grains are expensive! The first time I made bran muffins (last summer), I had to buy boxes of flax seed, oat bran, wheat germ, etc.; twenty dollars later and I wished I'd just gone to the bakery. Don't despair, though--you use them in such small amounts that if you keep them in your fridge or freezer, most will last you a year or more, and you can toss them in various recipes. Even after multiple batches of whole-grain muffins, breads, and this granola, I still have those original boxes, beckoning me from the back of the fridge. I use them whenever possible.

So here's your basic method: Mix together dry ingredients (minus fruit) and spices in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl, whisk wet ingredients. Add wet to dry, toss well (breaking up large pieces) and pour onto a foil-lined, cooking-sprayed baking sheet. Bake, toss, bake, toss, cool, add fruit. Done. Keep it in an airtight container in your fridge for a few weeks and add to yogurt (any flavor), frozen yogurt, even the top of cobblers: You can make a quick cobbler by sauteing fruit, pouring it on top of ice cream, and adding this granola. I've even seen granola bread recipes. Have fun and use your imagination.

A note on yogurt: I prefer vanilla, but I'm always having to buy plain low-fat yogurt for baking, particularly my banana bread. I don't know about you, but in my town, plain yogurt does not come in anything smaller than a 32-ounce container. I always ending throwing some (okay, a lot) away. However, I've recently realized that you can flavor plain yogurt with anything! I prefer to squeeze in some honey and add a 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract (to a 1/2 cup of yogurt). You can also add jams or preserves for fruit-flavored yogurt. You'll never get bored or waste yogurt. It's kind of like making your own vinaigrettes instead of buying big bottles from the store--you can change out the flavors whenever the desire hits you.

Homemade Granola
(adapted from A Real American Breakfast by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison)

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup oat bran
1/4 cup milled flax seed
4-5 T brown sugar (any kind)
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
(Feel free to add any other spices you like.)
(You can certainly add chopped nuts as well.)

1/4 cup juice (apple, apple cider, OJ, cranberry--it all works)
3 T honey
1 T vanilla extract
2 T vegetable oil (or unsalted butter)

Dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, currants, blueberries, cherries, dates, mango, apricots--whatever you prefer, just chop any large pieces)
Chocolate chips, hunks, or M&Ms (to make it more like trail mix)

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line a large baking sheet with foil and spray liberally with cooking spray. Stir the dry ingredients well in a large bowl. Whisk the wet ingredients. Add wet to dry and toss until well-incorporated, breaking up large pieces. Pour the mixture on the baking sheet and bake for 15 mins., toss, bake another 15 minutes, toss, let cool. You want the granola to be about a shade darker than when you started, but really, let your nose do the work. You want it to smell strong and sweet, but not bitter or burnt. It will not be crunchy when you remove it from the oven--it will dry and harden as it cools. Once it has cooled, add in fruit and store in an airtight container.