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!
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.