Sunday, August 8, 2010

Defiantly, I Bake

I’ve been trying not to complain about the heat too much, in real life and on this blog.  It seems rather pointless and obsessive to waste words on something that I really, truly cannot change.  I live in Texas.  Summer is hot in Texas.  The end.

But I did think that I could explain how August here is distinctly different from August in the Midwest.  The eighth month of the year is pretty miserable in much of the United States, but at least in Texas, every building has air conditioning and no one thinks twice about using it.  When I lived in Chicago, I didn’t have an air-conditioning unit in my apartment, and there were only about 4-5 days each summer during which the temperatures soared into the miserable zone.  And lucky me, I had a beautiful ceiling fan in my bedroom, which made even terribly hot nights much more comfortable.  During the days, I would find air-conditioning at the library or the lab, and I’d camp out until I felt chilled enough to brave the heat again.  The system worked well.

I should mention this too: I loved summers in Chicago.  Because winter lasts for six months, summer is a glorious, bare-skin, flirty-skirts, mornings-at-the-farmers’-market season.  The air is fragrant, the sun is warm, and everyone is happy.  I would spend hours walking along the lake or wandering through downtown, enjoying the way my heart felt light.  Summer was like a drug, and I could not get enough.  I’m such a thermophile.

Summer in Texas is weird.  For one thing, it feels to me like it starts in April.  I could hardly bear to be inside during April this year—I could feel the old summer addiction starting to flare up.  In the evenings, I went swimming or I’d hop on the bike and go for a long ride, soaking up the summery ambiance.  We had wildflowers and gorgeous sunsets, and I bought new shorts to celebrate the season of bare legs.  It was great.

April turned into May, which became June.  Things started heating up, but still, it was pretty fun to feel hot instead of cold.  My bike rides became sweatier, and my skin turned a little brown, despite my devotion to SPF15.  In July, the days were hot, but after dusk, things cooled off a little bit and I started running more errands in the evenings, trying to avoid the heat of the day when possible.  We had a lot of rain in July, which really cooled things off and made the air smell like grass and dirt.  The rain made me happy because it meant that I could go for evening walks even before dusk, and the cool air would feel refreshing.  If I was lucky, there would even be a breeze carrying that delicious rain scent right up my nose.

And now we have August.  I’ve never liked August—it’s always been too hot and too long for its own good.  It was both the worst of summer and the end of summer, because after August, school started and that was definitely the end of summer.

A Texas August is like a vampire: it sucks the life right out of you.  I spend most of my time indoors now because the heat is so intense, but I do have to venture outside to commute to work, to run errands, and to buy food.  I can’t write a food blog without any food, people!  I find that it’s manageable to be outside for 15-20 minutes, but it leaves me exhausted—I’m practically hallucinating with heat-induced visions.  I do a lot of my outdoorsy stuff in the morning or in the evening when the sun is fading from the sky.  The important part is to avoid the combination of mid-day heat plus sun.

It feels like summer is the indoor season down here.  I know I shouldn’t do it, but if I’m going to spend all this time inside, I must bake.  It’s wrong, right?  I should not have the oven and the air-conditioner running at the same time.  But I do.  It’s one of my worst environmental sins.  I’m a carless vegetarian, but I like to bake in August.  Oh well—nobody’s perfect, and I certainly never said that I was.

The Wooden Spoon Takes a Rest

Not too long ago, the lovely Shauna of Gluten-Free Girl posted a most delicious-sounding granola recipe.  I was powerless to resist the urge to have my own batch of it.  I was also powerless to resist the urge to tinker with the recipe in some important ways.  For one, I left out the dried fruit altogether.  I’ve learned that I prefer fresh fruit with granola, so I like to make my granola without fruit.  The other change I made was that, cheapskate that I am, I opted not to use maple syrup and instead made a brown sugar syrup.  Brown sugar is way, way cheaper than maple syrup, and I had a big bag of it on hand.  I do love maple syrup, though, and love it in granolas.

I made this granola a few weeks ago, when it was a bit cooler here in Texas, but I’ll make it again, heat be damned.  In defense of my baking, this recipe makes an enormous batch, so even though the oven will be on for close to an hour, the reward is big.  That means that I don’t need to make more granola for a few weeks, especially because granola keeps like a champ.  Two weeks after making it, this granola is still crisp and delicious.  It tastes like a crunchy oatmeal cookie, sweet and flavored with spicy cinnamon and ginger.  Somehow it tastes almost buttery to me, which is a neat trick for a recipe that contains no butter and just a little bit of oil.  Most of the fat comes from nuts and seeds, so this is a seriously wholesome granola.  I recommend you make your own batch and taste it for yourself.

Granola Is Best with Blueberries

Crunchy Brown Sugar Granola

Adapted from this terrific recipe on Gluten-Free Girl (thank you, Shauna!)

Makes a HUGE batch!

I like to eat this crunchy granola with fresh blueberries and milk.  It makes for a great afternoon snack.  It’s also good eaten plain—the better to enjoy all that crunchiness!

1/2 cup water

1 cup brown sugar, packed

5 cups rolled oats

2 cups coarsely chopped raw almonds

1 cup pumpkin seeds

1/4 cup sesame seeds

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. mild extra-virgin olive oil

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Spray a large rimmed pan really well with cooking spray.  I use my 10x15-inch roasting pan for this.

2)  In a small saucepan, mix the water and brown sugar together.  Bring the mixture to a boil to make a thick syrup, whisking frequently, then set it aside and let it cool.

3)  In a very large mixing bowl, mix together the oats, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.  Sprinkle the cinnamon, ginger, and salt over the oat mixture, then mix the spices into everything else.

4)  Whisk the oil into the brown sugar syrup that you set aside.  Mix the wet ingredients into the dry oat mixture.  Mix really well!

5)  Spread the granola mixture into the prepared pan.  Bake for about 48 minutes, stopping to stir things up every 12 minutes.  48 minutes was long enough to make my granola a toasty brown color without burning it.  Your baking time may vary from mine, so I recommend keeping a close eye on it for the last 15-20 minutes.  Trust your nose—if it smells done, check it to see that it hasn’t burned.

6)  Let the granola cool in its pan, stirring occasionally.  Store at room temperature in sealed containers.  Serve with fresh fruit and milk or yogurt.


Anonymous said...

Important difference between the Texas indoor season and the Midwestern indoor season: at least when you're stuck in the house in Texas, it's sunny out and it doesn't get dark at 5 P.M.!

It's actually been unusually hot here this summer. I went out at 8:00 to pick raspberries and was struck by the combination of warmth, humidity, and early morning scents. The fresh, wet smell of the air gave me a "nasal memory" of morning swim lessons as a little kid . . . in Texas of course. So that tells you something about the weather here!


Rosiecat said...

Ooh, your morning of raspberry picking sounds dreamy, AMPD! And yes, you're right about the sunshine here. I like the cloudy days down here more because they are so rare.

I occasionally have similar experiences during which an unusually cool, cloudy evening will remind me of the Midwest. I don't know if mine is a nasal memory or more of a total sensory experience. It's neat how our brains can do that!

Rosiecat said...

PS You make the best raspberry jam! Yum.