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!
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)