Valentine’s Day came and went with takeout chicken salad sandwiches and a bottle of wine at home. A fancier date night felt tough this year with childcare logistics and, frankly, going out on Valentine’s Day can often be a bummer with fixed price menus and hard-to-get reservations. We’re constantly rejiggering, it seems. So this year, chicken sandwiches by candlelight felt just right. In talking to so many of our friends with young kids, it seems rejiggering is just the order of the day and while I’m generally a fan of planning and to-do lists, I’m getting much better at going with the flow. One of the things that helps is having something at-the-ready in the mornings, so the day’s decision making doesn’t have to include what to make (or eat) for breakfast. It should be pretty simple in the early hours. And lately, simple looks like these chewy granola bars. They’re soft and hefty and feel homemade in the best way possible, and they freeze really well so you can make a big batch and stash some away for those Major Rejiggering Weeks. You know the kind.
I’ve made many a granola bar in my life, and I find they’re much like brownies in the sense that people have very strong opinions about how they like theirs: either you’re camp soft and chewy or camp crunchy, and these are definitely the former. I’ve experimented with many ways to make a much healthier granola bar, decreasing the sweetener and oil as much as possible and the result is often the same: a not-so-tasty pile of granola (not granola bars). So while still packed with healthy whole grains, nuts and natural sweeteners, these are fully stepping up to the plate with lots of almond butter, and a generous hit of coconut oil. If you ask me, good granola and good granola bars need some (good) fat.
For these bars, I partnered with one of my favorite brands, Bob’s Red Mill, and used their organic rolled oats for the base. Bob’s makes so many whole grains and whole grain flours readily available and easy to find — they’re my go-to for everything from oats to cornmeal. In general, I love the combination of cashews, coconut, almonds and honey so those flavors come out big here — but as I discuss in the head note of the recipe, you can use any nuts, seeds or dried fruits you’d like instead.
If you’ve read my cookbook or taken one of my cooking classes, you know that my style of cooking is relatively easy going, and I always love for you to make any adaptations that work better for you or your lifestyle, but I will say there are a few things you really shouldn’t change with this recipe if you want it to work. First, you want to chop your cashews (or any larger nut) pretty darn small or slicing these will inevitably be a bit of a headache. Second, when you’re pressing your mixture into the oiled pan, you want to press quite firmly and really pack it down. This will help it compact and bake into more of a firm bar. Use well-oiled hands or the back of a spatula. I’ll even do a second press halfway through the cook time to continue to compact the mixture, which I’m not sure technically helps them hold together in the long run, but I have a hunch it does. Last, while I know it seems like an impossibly long time to cool, these really do take a good 3 hours to cool completely and firm up. If you try to slice them before that time, they’ll crumble on you. I like to slice these guys long and slim, like the old school granola bars I used to eat as a kid. But you can certainly slice them into squares if you’d prefer. Remember that while they’ll hold together like a bar, they are quite soft, so they’re also great crumbled on top of your morning yogurt, which I’ve been loving lately. Or ice cream. You know, just in case you find yourself rejiggering in the evening as you search for something sweet at the end of the day.
These granola bars are soft, chewy and hefty – they feel homemade in the best possible way. As with most granola bar recipes, they’re infinitely adaptable, so feel free to use your favorite nuts and seeds instead of the ones I’ve used here — you just want to keep the proportions of wet and dry ingredients the same. It will be tempting to try a granola bar soon after they come out of the oven, but they really do need at least 3 hours to cool and firm up, so plan accordingly.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9×13 pan with a little coconut oil or your favorite cooking spray. Lay a folded sheet of parchment into the pan so its flaps hang over the edges (this makes it easy to lift the bars out when finished cooling), and grease the top of the parchment, too.
In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the honey, coconut oil and almond butter in a saucepan and heat to combine, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat, add the vanilla and stir well.
In a large bowl, mix together oats, millet, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, coconut flakes, salt and cinnamon.
Pour the warm liquid over the dry ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon (or your hands, which I find easier). Make sure there aren’t any dry bits in the bowl — you want the wet mixture completely incorporated. With lightly greased hands or the back of a spatula, press the mixture very firmly into the prepared pan.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the edges are a slightly darker shade of golden brown. The bars will still look about the same color and will feel soft to the touch, so you’ll likely think they aren’t done yet. They will firm up as they cool. Allow bars to cool for at least 3 hours. Slice and store in an airtight container. If you’d like, wrap individual bars in plastic wrap and freeze for up to six months (to thaw, take out of the freezer the night before you’d like to enjoy them and set on counter).
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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.