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!
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.