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).
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?)