Monday, February 2, 2009

Morning, Noon, Night

I think my favorite place in the whole world right now is the couch. I shouldn’t refer to it as “the couch,” since it has a name. My couch’s name is Big Blue, and Big Blue is the best couch in the world.

I give Anne Lamott all the credit for the cozy feelings between Big Blue and me. I blatantly stole her idea. I’ve been treating myself to couch cruises, which is a wonderful name for an escape that happens right in your very own living room, on your very own couch. The idea is that you give yourself a little mini-vacation by retreating to your couch with all sorts of goodies to keep yourself fed, entertained, serene, and loved for a few hours. Whatever things make you feel that way—those items become your luggage on your couch cruise. I pack light on my cruise—these days it’s my copy of Eat, Pray, Love, a mug of tea, one of Ammie’s Orange Shortbread Chocolate Chip Cookies, and the fleece blanket that my dear friend Heather gave me. I take my cruises in the evening, after dinner, but sometimes before the dishes are washed. As soon as I climb onto Big Blue, I feel better. I can feel the day’s worries receding from me like shoreline as Big Blue and I set sail. My imaginary ocean is always peaceful; I am lulled into contentment by the stillness of the water. I nibble my cookie, I read my book, and I am happy. Sometimes I nap. I even take fake naps, the type of naps where I lay down, pull the blanket around me snugly, close my eyes, and think about nothing. Or sex. Whichever sounds more appealing at the time.

I’m actually taking a couch cruise right now. The water isn’t choppy, so I’m not worried about my laptop getting wet. I want to talk about something very important today, something which has been occupying much of my waking thought.


My story starts a few weeks ago when I was shopping at Whole Foods and I saw that my favorite cereal, Barbara’s Bakery Shredded Oats, had gone up to $3.79 a box. $3.79! &*$#! That’s just too much money for 16 ounces of cereal. I really, really love that cereal, but the price hike was just the motivation I needed to work on my breakfast repertoire. At first, I decided to get on the oatmeal porridge bandwagon. What’s not to love about oatmeal porridge? It’s creamy, warm, and cheap. You can gussy it up or eat it plain. It’s the breakfast equivalent of an ice cream sundae—oatmeal’s job is to accept any and every topping with open arms. And it is delicious, filling, and ridiculously good for you.

Too bad after a few mornings of oatmeal I just…lost interest. I like oatmeal porridge every once in a while. If I’m not eating it every day, it usually sounds good to me—it even sounds like a great idea for tomorrow’s breakfast. But I just can’t get excited about eating something soft every time I break my fast. I like crunch. I like to give the milk something to do, something to soften slowly while I munch my way down to the bottom of the bowl. Clearly, oatmeal porridge and I are better off as casual acquaintances than best friends forever.

How is it possible to love oats but not oatmeal porridge? I am baffled. But I do love oats, and I still need breakfast, something to get me excited about starting my day. For week days, it still needs to be a quick, low-effort meal, the kind I can assemble while the hamster in my brain gets on his running wheel. Geez, that fella’s gotten lazy in his old age. I have to motivate him with something really enticing, something with crunch and nuts and, most importantly, maple syrup. The hamster really needs his maple syrup.

So I turned to my favorite breakfast book and opened to the recipe for Very Crunchy Granola. Then I proceeded to not follow the recipe at all. Isn’t that just like me? I own dozens of cookbooks and I treat every last recipe as a suggestion. Some people have speculated that this loosey-goosey approach may be the way I do my experiments in the lab, and it could explain why I get wonky results, but I’m quick to correct this assumption: in the lab I am a scientist and I act like a scientist. In the kitchen, I’m a cook and I act like a cook. Cooking is as much science as it is play, curiosity, and inspiration. I don’t get too hung up on the science of cooking, except when I’m learning a new technique or trick. I find it very useful to follow my gut in the kitchen. The belly knows best.

Years ago, the first time I tried Mollie Katzen’s Very Crunchy Granola, I followed the recipe closely. Or at least I tried. I did cut the recipe in half for equipment reasons, and I couldn’t figure out what she meant by barley flakes (any guesses?), so I used some whole-grain cereal flakes instead. Sunflower seeds usually taste rancid to me, so I replaced those with some nuts. And without planning to do so, I cut the baking time by almost half because my granola was getting awfully dark at the 25-minute mark. That first batch of Mollie’s granola was marvelous, and it was gone so fast I think I may have been eating it in my sleep.

Any time I make a recipe for the first time, the lack of familiarity slows me down. This granola had so much chopping and measuring! I don’t want to spend the whole damn night hovering over a cutting board! I want to cuddle with Big Blue! So even though I liked the granola, I felt put off by the effort required to make it, and the taste became a distant memory.

But this winter poked me in the wallet and suddenly, I had reason to start tinkering with Mollie Katzen’s recipe. Every ingredient she used that I didn’t like, I replaced with something better. Oat bran? How about quick-cooking rolled oats? Soy protein powder? Um, I’ll pass. Canola oil? That’s fine, but what about trying walnut oil, since it’s just sitting in the fridge, so neglected and lonely? Maple syrup? Oh, let’s definitely keep that, especially if we use a nice dark amber syrup—one with tons of maple flavor.

Step by step, Mollie’s recipe started looking more like a new recipe—she provided the inspirational template, and I just followed my belly. The result is a granola that, if I’ve got a batch of it tucked away, must be eaten every day. It’s a great breakfast option, especially with milk and a nice piece of fruit. It’s also a tempting after-lunch, I’ll-just-have-a-bite-or-two dessert. It goes down well before or after work-outs. And if it’s fresh out of the oven, and the smell of maple syrup and toasted nuts is making me feel blissed out with joy, then I’ll have a dainty bowl for dessert…then I’ll have seconds, since the first bowl was so small. Indeed, this granola is worthy of seconds!

Incidentally, I never did the math to figure out if this granola is a better deal than my beloved Shredded Oats, but my belly says it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how delicious this stuff is. So allow me to shoo you into the kitchen so that you have an excuse to eat more maple syrup, any time and as needed. Your hamster will thank you.

Crunchy Breakfast Granola
Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café
Makes ~5-6 cups

This is breakfast cereal for those who like excitement in their bowl! There is a lot going on in this granola: all those oats and nuts get bathed in maple syrup and walnut oil and then toasted with warmth in the oven. The pecans lend a buttery flavor to the whole batch, and that syrup is just impossibly rich and delicious. This granola is not too sweet—I think a quarter cup of syrup is just right, but feel free to add more or less syrup or even other sweeteners as you like.

You’ll notice I use both rolled oats and quick-cooking rolled oats, the latter being a more pulverized version of the former. I like the texture that comes from using two different oats—I feel like the more crumbly quick-cooking rolled oats absorb the wet ingredients and help distribute them throughout the granola.

Nonstick cooking spray
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
2 cups multigrain cereal flakes, such as Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus Multibran Cereal
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup chopped peanuts
1/4 tsp. salt*
6 tbsp. walnut or canola oil
1/4 cup dark amber maple syrup
1/2 tbsp. vanilla extract

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a 9x13 baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
2) In a large bowl, combine the two kinds of oats, cereal flakes, pecans, peanuts, and salt. Mix thoroughly.
3) In a smaller bowl, like a measuring cup, combine the oil, maple syrup, and vanilla. Whisk together thoroughly.
4) Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir gently to distribute the wet mixture evenly.
5) Spoon the granola into the prepared baking pan and bake for 20-25 minute or until everything smells wonderfully sweet and toasty. Stir the granola once or twice during baking to help prevent too much clumping.
6) Once the granola is done baking, stir it again and let it cool in its pan on a wire rack.
7) Eat right away or store the granola in tightly sealed containers. Serve with milk and fruit if you like.

*March 2, 2009. A post-script.
My original post of this recipe listed the salt at 1/2 tsp. That was wrong! It should be 1/4 tsp. Otherwise the granola will taste salty, which is not good. The salt is there to balance out the other flavors, not to create an overtly salty flavor. I'm so sorry about the mistake.


yasmin said...

I love that your couch is called big blue! I take fake naps too, they come in pretty handy if real naps prove elusive as they do for me. And that granola sounds delicious. I have yet to make my own granola, but this is definitely very inspiring.

Rosiecat said...

Ah, I'm not alone in my love for fake naps! I think it can be very refreshing to just shut out the world for a few minutes, even if sleep is elusive (oh, slippery sleep!).

Thank goodness maple syrup is vegan, Yasmin! You wouldn't even have to change any ingredients to make it vegan :-) Of course, this type of recipe just begs you to tinker with it to make it your own, so it's a good starting spot if you've never made granola before. Happy baking!

ammie said...

Look, it's my signature cookie! I think I have another platonic cookie date this weekend...
And someday soon I hope to actually getting around to making one of your delicious granolas.

ttfn300 said...

Mmm, breakfast... my favorite meal!! have you tried savory oats? i stir an egg white and cheese in at the end of cooking (or cottage cheese), and top with salsa for a different bowl :)

granola, my my, i fear making it b/c i could eat it by the batch!

Rosiecat said...

Ammie, you're platonically dating other people? Don't you think we should have discussed this first? You know how I feel about jealousy... ;-)

By the way, I have run out of orange shortbread cookies! Now what am I going to eat on my couch cruise?

Ooh, ttfn, I've never tried a savory oatmeal! That sounds delicious. I'd probably copy your suggestion and pair it with a nice apple or banana and a big spoonful of Barney Butter. Breakfast just isn't breakfast without a little something sweet.

If I could, I would send you single-servings of my granola! Then you wouldn't feel bad about eating it all in one sitting.

Hillary said...

I had a Big Blue in my life once, too! It was a gigantic 1984 Chevrolet Caprice Classic station wagon. The car in which I learned to drive while trekking to Nebraska from Seattle to visit my grandparents when I was 15. This totally made me nostalgic.

Rosiecat said...

Hillary, that's awesome. We call my mom and her car Big Red. My mom has red hair that gets BIG when it grows out, and her car is a gigantic red Chrysler that feels like a boat rolling down the street. So it's Big Red driving Big Red!

ShanaRose said...

mmmMMM Granola!!
I also loved your ocean/cruise metaphors and the syrup hungry hamster - wonderful :-)

Rosiecat said...

Aw, thank you, ShanaRose! You're too kind :-) I should bake you some granola!

Rosiecat said...

Dear reader, I regret that I found a TYPO in this recipe! The salt should be listed as 1/4 tsp., not 1/2 tsp.! I'm so, so sorry about this. I hope my mistake did not ruin an otherwise good batch of granola.

Note that I've corrected the mistake in the recipe as it appears in the post.