Granola. You know what just popped into your head. You do. I will bet it has nothing to do with cityscapes, suits, ties, evening gowns or limos. I will bet it has something to do with mountain landscapes, flannel shirts, hiking boots, and possibly white boy dreadlocks. And there is good reason. Granola is not sleek, nor is it sophisticated, likely not drunk with a martini while wearing heels. But it is really, really, tasty.
Years ago I witnessed Alton Brown whip together granola on his show “Good Eats”. At the time I was an absolute acolyte, worshiping at the Food Network altar, dutifully engaging in the ritual drooling required of all viewers, back when they actually showed you how to cook. There were many, many things done on his show I could not do in a crappy apartment kitchen in Brooklyn (and frankly still can’t now in my tiny Chicago kitchen,) but granola… that I could do. I followed his recipe exactly, and thought it was tasty. I wrote it down, I sent it to other people, I never strayed, fearful that… well I honestly can’t say what I was fearful of. Secret agents employed solely by Alton Brown busting down my door and confiscating my spatulas? A team of granola-sniffing hounds arriving at my door, ratting me out the second they smelled ½ cup of sugar instead of the required ¾ cup? Oats programmed to spontaneously combust if they were not actually stirred exactly every 15 minutes in the oven?
On the day I finally broke with the recipe, none of this happened. I didn’t break with it that much. Just a little. And then a little more. And at this point, I do not know if I strayed far or I am only a few tablespoons of oats off. I have made it so many times I can’t remember. And homemade granola is so delicious, so much lighter and full of life that I can’t bring myself to buy even the fancy stuff at Whole Foods. Frankly, after years of making my own, even the “high end” stuff feels like it might break my teeth from the rock hard oaten gravel found within. So of course I had to figure out granola bars.
Granola bars proved a little trickier. Recipes abound, and there seems to be no through line. One called for a whopping two sticks of butter, another for piles of goopy corn syrup. I do love butter, but don’t relish the idea of a bar that left my fingers shiny and slick. And I want to avoid corn syrup. The first batch I ever made used granola I had already baked. I am fairly sure you could have used them in light construction projects. The next batch was oatmeal gone horribly, goopily wrong. And then I started to figure things out. A hair less oil. Something other than solid oats to fill it out. 50 degrees less, 25 degrees more, 35 minutes more, 10 minutes less, score them 5 minutes after, 15 minutes after, use an 8×11 pan, use a 9×13 pan, a never ending parade of oaty delights. My colon wept, wondering when the assault would end. And then finally, one day, it all clicked into place, and I found the ratio. Ingredients, times, everything sunk into place, and a crispy bar that held together (until you bit in, then bits of it become a bit graceless, but as per the previous associations, I am fairly sure no one is eating granola in an evening gown,) but did not threaten to carve up the inside of your mouth like a Christmas roast, but not goopy, leaving you with sticky hands you are unwilling to swipe across your smartphone screen. OK, maybe that would have been a nice break, we do spend too much time on those damned things, but I digress. I had it. Granola bars. Ultimately, for all the research and experimentation, it ended up being not far off from the original granola recipe, with a few adjustments to make the whole thing hold together. And it means much like regular granola, I will never buy granola bars again. But I might figure out how to pair one with a martini.
makes 12 bars, roughly 1 ½”x3” each
1 ¾ c. whole rolled oats (I do not use quick-cooking, I use regular)
1 ½ c. puffed rice cereal (no, I do not mean a certain cereal championed by a trio of elves, go look in the natural food aisle. I probably wouldn’t eat this on its own, but it lightens this up a bit)
½ c. pecans (or other nut, if you like, but you don’t have to, this is just what I prefer)
½ c. unsweetened flaked coconut (important: do not substitute sweetened shredded coconut. Find the unsweetened stuff.)
2 Tbsp. flax seed (because it totally makes it healthy. Also totally optional)
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ c. dark brown sugar
½ c. dark chocolate chips (again, optional, but… it’s dark chocolate, so why would you not want it?)
scant ¼ c. sunflower or safflower oil (I like these better than canola, as they are light but with a touch of warmth to them, but you can use canola if you like)
¼ c. brown rice syrup (found in natural food places, call it the hippie version of corn syrup)
¼ c. maple syrup (the real stuff, NOT pancake syrup from bottles shaped like matronly women)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Adjust your lowest rack to be one notch above the bottom. Line a 9×13 baking dish with parchment paper and lightly grease. In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. In a small pan on the stovetop or in a bowl in the microwave, gently heat the wet ingredients, just until the brown rice syrup loosens up, and whisk to combine. Pour over the dry ingredients and combine thoroughly. It will feel like there is not enough syrup, but have patience. Keep stirring it, making sure to stir up bits from the bottom, until everything is evenly coated. This will not be that wet. Pour into the prepped dish, then wet your hands and gently press the mixture down evenly across the baking dish. Bake for 1 hour on the bottom rack, then remove the baking dish to a cooling rack. Let cool for 15 minutes, then using a dough divider or a knife, gently score where you want to eventually cut bars. Let cool for another hour, remove from the pan, and let cool completely before cutting along the score lines to break into bars. Store in airtight container for at least a week. They likely won’t last beyond that.
Once you get the hang of it, mess with the dry ingredients. Add in pumpkin seeds, or soak some craisins in hot water and drain before adding back in (they will dry out again in the baking process). Add a little more sugar if you like them really sweet. Keep trying! Even the failure of these little ditties will be tasty. Just really, really messy.