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.