Last weekend I flew home to California to do a number of book events for Whole-Grain Mornings. I’ve done readings and classes here in Seattle but had yet to travel to promote the book, and it was such a treat to do so in my old stomping grounds. Sam took the train down to meet me and we stayed at my mom’s house just North of San Francisco. She threw a wonderful book party on Friday night and despite the torrential (!!) downpours, many old friends and colleagues came to join us along with a large handful of my mom’s friends and neighbors. There was Prosecco and lots of cheese and a few hours to really get to mark the completion of the cookbook. When everyone left, Sam and I took off our shoes, did the dishes and sat at the kitchen counter eating leftover olives and Jeni’s ice cream straight from the container (not sure I can vouch for this pairing for future reference). It turns out that funny mix of exhilaration and excitement but utter fatigue had hit — and it stuck around that weekend.
While in the Bay Area I did a variety of events, from cooking classes to book signings and a little shindig at Anthropologie. And can I just say that I have loved meeting you all — those who I’ve gotten to meet — and talk with you about the recipes you’re making and about how you’re using the book at home? Writing a cookbook is a funny, solitary thing. For me, there was a lot of early morning or late night recipe testing and research, pacing, mad note-taking all over the house, and breakfast for lunch and dinner for months. It’s insular work and can be a bit (or a lot) lonely, so to get out of my kitchen and into the world with the book and share it with you all has been the highlight of the entire process for me.
And I learned a little lesson while in San Francisco doing events. I had a policy of just saying “YES” to any book opportunity that came my way, but I got pretty tired last weekend moving from one to the next (sometimes with three in one day) with not enough time for a proper meal or a sit-down-and-chill-out-for-a-second. So I’ve started to look at my calendar more realistically now and am structuring my days in a more spacious way. Also: I have decided there must be more snacks. There were not enough snacks in San Francisco. In keeping that in mind, I whipped up these Citrus-Spiked Muesli Bars a few days ago and plan to take a batch on the road with me to Portland this weekend (Portlanders, I’d love to meet you! More information below).
We are in love with these bars around here. They could really be called Lazy Man’s Granola Bars instead of muesli bars and Sam kept asking what makes them a muesli bar versus a granola bar — which is a really fair question. In truth, you could call them either. We’ve been making a new Triple-Grain Muesli for Marge Granola so I’ve been eating it non-stop lately and when I set out to make these, I wanted to throw them together quickly instead of measuring and weighing out a number of dry ingredients for them for you here. So calling for 3 cups of muesli is an easy way to say, essentially, you want to use 3 cups of your favorite rolled grains, nuts and seeds for these.
Muesli is a German word meaning “mixture” and I think that’s useful to keep in mind when thinking about mixing up your own batch. I created a Hazelnut Cherry Muesli a few years ago for The Kitchn, and last year wrote about a Fruit and Nut Muesli that we eat a lot (and that inspired the brand new Marge Muesli that just went on sale last week). Traditional bircher-style muesli is unbaked, but many people are toasting their muesli these days with a little bit of honey or sweetener and perhaps just a touch of oil or butter — or nothing at all. I have a Toasted Mango and Coconut Muesli in my cookbook that I love for it’s downright tropical nature and subtle kiss of sweetness — perfect for these gray winter days. But there’s a special place in my heart for clean, traditional unbaked muesli. It’s good morning energy food, and I love to soak mine in almond milk or runny yogurt for a few hours (or up to overnight) and doctor it up with a tiny bit of jam or honey. So the gist here: when it comes to muesli, do what makes you happy. Toast it or don’t. Add your favorite nuts and seeds. Maybe a few dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries or raisins. Put it in a pretty jar. It’ll make things good this week; I promise.
So really, the brunt of your dry ingredients for these bars is muesli. You can mix up your own batch or buy a bag at the store. Beyond that, I added sesame seeds and a few spoonfuls of millet for extra crunch. These are really optional (although delicious if they’re easy for you to get your hands on). The muesli in this recipe is lightly sweetened and bound with a mixture of dates, almond butter, maple syrup and orange juice — and a little orange zest and vanilla extract are folded in at the end. The citrus flavor is truly sunny in these — you’ll notice it right away but it’s not at all overpowering. It’s just enough to remind you that spring’s slowly, but surely, on its way.
I’ll be in Portland, OR this weekend to promote Whole-Grain Mornings. If you’re in the city (or close it it), I’d love to meet you! You can find me at the following spots (or learn more on the book website).
PORTLAND BOOK TOUR: THIS WEEKEND!
Saturday 2/22/14: 10-11:30 am – Pages to Plate, The Cakery at Baker and Spice (this event is a great deal! $20 includes the cost of the book, granola demo, snacks and coffee).
Sunday 2/23/14: 3-6 pm – Cooking class at Tabor Bread (I’m so excited about this class, a collaboration with Bee Local Honey, Strauss Creamery and the amazing folks at Tabor Bread. $30 includes cooking demo, snacks, samples, take home treats and a discussion on whole grain flours and local honey. Join us; $30!)
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Preheat the oven to 325 F. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking pan and set aside.
Process dates in a food processor until they begin to gather together in a ball, about 1 minute.
In a small heavy-bottom pan on the stovetop, warm the maple syrup, almond butter and orange juice over medium heat. Whisk well so the almond butter fully incorporates into the maple mixture. Slowly pour into the bowl of the food processor, add the vanilla extract, and process for another minute or so, or until the dates loosen into the warm maple mixture (should look like a really thick nut butter at this point).
In a medium bowl, whisk together your muesli, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and salt. Scrape date mixture into the bowl of muesli along with the orange zest and flax or millet and stir until all the grains and nuts are coated (while it gets a little messy, I use my hands at this point). Try to work relatively quickly so as not to let the mixture cool too much.
Turn the mixture out into the prepared pan and press firmly so it covers the surface evenly. I use the back of a spatula here to help. Bake for 25-28 minutes (see note below), or until the edges of the bars are just turning slightly brown. Let cool for at least 30 minutes, and ideally 1 hour, to allow bars to fully set. Slice into bars the size of your choosing and serve room temperature. Cover and store leftovers at room temperature for up to one week.
A quick note on baking the bars: It can be difficult to tell when the bars are done. Don’t wait until they’re uniformly golden or dark brown on the top, or until they’re completely dry or firm to the touch. They will be perfect if they’re just turning lightly brown around the edges but should still give way to your touch in the center — much like cookies when they come out of the oven, the bars will firm up as they cool. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and slice them before they’re cool, however, or they won’t hold together well for you. Give them at least 30 minutes and preferably 1 hour to cool and set completely. Enjoy!
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.