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).
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.