Thursday, January 29, 2009

Granola, Revisited

Do you remember way back when (a whole year ago!), when I was bitten by the granola bug, and produced a shocking number of batches of granola in the course of a mere few days? Well, I believe that I left you hanging with no recipe, but I also promised to update you with further granola developments as they presented themselves over the course of my granola-making career. It's been a while since that initial post, but I recently came up with a real winner of a recipe, by way of some serious experimentation and some rather unusual ingredients.

But first, I'll digress with some new thoughts on granola. I don't know why, exactly, but I've lately become a bit obsessed with the stuff. Making it, eating it, taste-testing it, reviewing it...It just happens to be the subject of a recent post on that illustrious source for natural foodies: The Natural Consumer. In general I don't buy packaged granola, mostly because it's generally overly sweet and overly decadent (coconut? butter? oil? sugar? chocolate? This is breakfast, people!), but I do enjoy seeing what the market has to offer. In fact, Galaxy Granola, reviewed on the Natural Consumer, is a rather tame, yet tasty reincarnation of the oh-so-popular breakfast treat.

But making granola - that's where the fun really is. You can throw in whatever ingredients you want (pepitas, hazelnuts, dates, sesame seeds, dried figs, ginger...), and coming up with a way to get that nice, crunchy texture while maintaining some semblance of wholesomeness is a perpetually entertaining challenge.

The main obstacles I run into when making my own granola are these: sweetness. I try not to eat overly sweet things for breakfast, and am perfectly content with a hot bowl of unsweetened oatmeal, so I have to make my granola pretty low-sugar if it's going to be worth my while. However, sweetness tends to bring out other flavors, and getting a flavorful granola while keeping the sugar down can be tricky. And secondly: texture. I like a granola that can be eaten out of hand, and some of the more spartan varieties I've played with tend to be too chewy, and not light and crunchy enough to enjoy without a good soak in some milk or yogurt.

Ah, what's a discerning, gastronomically-inclined neo-hippie to do? I've come up with a few suggestions. First, the sweetness. I've tried honey, I've dabbled with maple syrup, I've dribbled in a bit of molasses, all with the result of hints of sweetness, but not enough flavor. Enter beer. Beer for breakfast? OK, not beer, but something related.

Jonathan has recently become interested in brewing his own beer (a subject for its own post), and to make a long story short, we currently have a multi-gallon drum's worth of homemade malty goodness fermenting in our apartment. The leftovers of which happen to be a pound or so of barley malt syrup.

Barley malt syrup is a sweetener that is thicker than honey and about half as sweet, and has the distinctive malty flavor that you get with beer or anything else "malted." It's great for granola because, while somewhat sweet, it is also packed with a complex, grainy flavor that adds a whole new dimension to the granola mix. Besides, it's made by cooking down sprouted barley grains, and sprouts, as far as I'm concerned, are pure healthfulness (indeed, barley malt has lots of things - nutrients, protein, enzymes - that regular sugar doesn't). I'm pretty excited about the potential for lots more leftover barley malt, because it makes for some interesting culinary experimentation. But back to the granola...

As I mentioned before, my second granola challenge is texture. So, I took a cue from some packaged granolas and switched up my oat base. My new recipe calls for equal volumes of quick oats (they are thinner than regular rolled oats) and crisped brown rice cereal, which can be found in a box or, if you're lucky, in the bulk bins section of your grocery store. I also added some puffed corn, which adds both textural and visual contrast to the granola. I've found that this combination of cereals gives me the lightness and crunch that I'm looking for in granola.

So, I guess you want the recipe. A few notes (yes, more notes!): this granola is really not sweet. It is flavorful, and lovely with yogurt, but if you are looking for something sweet, you'll either have to add some sweetener (1/4 - 1/2 c. of honey, agave, etc. should do it, although I haven't actually tried it), or head back to for another recipe. The flavor comes from the malt, a hefty dose of vanilla extract, and some almond butter, which is wonderfully roasty and adds a little fat to the granola. The recipe also calls for egg whites and fruit puree, which help bind the granola and contribute to the crunchy, light texture. I wish I could say I invented the whole using egg whites in granola thing, because it really is brilliant. And finally, the add-ins. I love almonds and pumpkin seeds, and sometimes add dried fruit to my bowl (not before). You can use any combination of nuts or seeds that you like, and in any amount. I'm a bit of a minimalist, but if you like your granola more trail-mixy than breakfast cereal-y, go wild. Whew. Finally, here's the recipe. If you've read this far, you deserve it!

Wholesome Malted Granola

2 c. quick-cooking rolled oats
2 c. crisped brown rice (not puffed)
1 c. puffed corn
1 /4 c. wheat germ
1/4 c. ground flaxseed meal
1/3 c. sliced or chopped almonds
1/3 c. raw pepitas
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. egg whites (about 2, or use pasteurized)
4 oz. fruit puree (1 jar baby food; I use pear)
1 heaping tbs. roasted almond butter
2 tbs. barley malt syrup
1 tbs. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract


In a large bowl, combine cereals, flax, wheat germ, salt, and nuts/seeds. Stir to combine. In a smaller bowl, combine all wet ingredients and whisk to mix thoroughly. Pour wet ingredients over dry, and gently mix with a large wooden or silicone spoon. Stir until dry ingredients are evenly coated. Line 2 baking sheets with foil and lightly spray with canola oil. Pour half of granola onto each baking sheets, and spread evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 min., then stir and return to oven. Continue baking in 5-10 min. intervals, checking and stirring granola in between each interval. Bake until granola starts to turn golden and is just about crisp (it will crisp up a bit more once cool), about 20-30 min. total. Check frequently towards end of baking, as granola burns quickly. Remove from oven and allow to cool thoroughly. Store in an airtight container at room temperature or in the freezer for maximum freshness. Serve with milk or yogurt and your favorite dried fruit (I like raisins and dried cranberries).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January Daring Bakers: Light as Can Be

So I guess it's no coincidence that the Daring Bakers challenge I chose to skip - last month's French yule log - was a whole heck of a lot more complicated than this month's challenge, which I did indeed complete.

While the seven components of last month's challenge were tempting, in the end I just couldn't manage to deal with all that cream, butter, baking, freezing, etc., etc., especially while on vacation. January's challenge, though, was a breath of fresh air in the complexity department. Now, as per new DB rules, the next few lines must be included in my post:

This month's challenge is brought to us by Karen of Bake My Day and Zorra of 1x umruehren bitte aka Kochtopf. They have chosen Tuiles from The Chocolate Book by Angélique Schmeink and Nougatine and Chocolate Tuiles from Michel Roux.

So there you have it, tuiles. Tuiles are very thin, wafer-like cookies that are baked and then shaped while still warm. Traditionally, they are molded on top of a rolling pin or rolled into cigar shapes, and they pair perfectly with ice cream or some other rich adornment.

I followed the recipe for basic tuiles almost to the letter, but added a dash of almond extract along with vanilla because light, egg white-based cookies just scream almond to me. My other variation was that I chose to use whole-wheat pastry flour in place of the all-purpose.

Although the cookies tasted quite good, the texture wasn't quite right, most likely because of the whole wheat flour (I anticipated this problem, but still wanted to try out the whole wheat). Instead of molding easily fresh from the oven, my cookies were a bit more resistant to shaping, and the edges were a bit crackly. Nonetheless, I still managed to make just enough cigar shapes for my mini-photo shoot (and the rest were not paper-thin tuiles, but rather thick and delightfully chewy almond-scented cookies).

I paired the tuiles with a grapefruit curd, which, in the end, turned out more like sauce than curd. Let's just say textures weren't my forte in this little baking experiment. Tastes though, were spot on. I made a cream appropriate for filling my cigar-tuiles by mixing the sweet curd with some whipped cottage cheese, which added a nice bit of body to the cookies.

All in all, the tuiles were tasty and fun to eat; I'm not sure I have the patience to make them paper thin though, and would just as soon make the batter into drop cookies. They are nowhere near as elegant as some of the other Daring Bakers' creations, but I dare you to tell me they don't taste damn good with some ice cream of sweet cheese slathered on them.

A wispy challenge come and gone; let's see what February will bring!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Shortcuts

I think it's fair to say that anyone who has the patience to make her own sourdough starter isn't exactly a slave to shortcuts. Slave to feeding mischievous masses of flour and water twice a day, perhaps. But not to shortcuts.

It's not that I have anything against cooking shortcuts, really. I just like the food I make to reflect my own work, my own tastes, and my own style. And I like it to taste good and not have any ingredients that might sneak their way in under my radar. Pre-cut vegetables? I'll pay for the extra knife skills practice with five minutes of my time. Microwaved oatmeal? Only at work, when I haven't yet had breakfast - and I swear each bite makes me appreciate the beauty of on-the-stove oatmeal more than I did before. OK, so I maybe I do have something against shortcuts, because shortcuts to me usually indicate sacrificing a good deal of quality and precious learning experiences.

However, even I have a few tricks up my culinary sleeve that happen to help put dinner on the table in a timely manner. Especially now that dinner preparations for me happen in the extremely short (and getting shorter, it seems) window between getting home from work and plopping into bed, I've started embracing the shortcuts that add both quality and quickness to my everyday menus.

My shortcuts include using canned chickpeas and artichoke hearts to make lunch-worthy salads, investing in a few jars of high-quality pasta sauce, and keeping my freezer stocked with things like peas, spinach, and shelled edamame, which I throw into just about anything to give it a boost of vegetable-y green. The trick of the day, though, is a bit more obscure: jarred aromatics.

Now, let's be clear: I am not, under any circumstances, going to condone using minced garlic from a jar. Garlic is just too easy to find and to keep in the kitchen, and too quick to chop by hand for it to ever inhabit a flavor-sapping jar that sits in the refrigerator. What I'm talking about is something more exotic and much more difficult to find (in its fresh form, at least) in the grocery store: lemongrass.

The perfect addition to a simple and flavorful tofu stir-fry, lemongrass is exactly the kind of thing I like to have on hand, but not something I use often enough to merit buying it in bulk on the rare days when Whole Foods has it in stock. I use a brand that contains only lemongrass, water, and citric acid (Vitamin C), and though it's less potent than the fresh stuff, it's easy enough to add a little extra to my dish and call it even.

The dish I'm thinking of, of course, is this amazingly simple and fragrant lemongrass tofu, which is inspired by this recipe from Rasa Malaysia and an amazing lemongrass tofu dish I had at the Slanted Door a year or so ago. Although there aren't many ingredients in the dish, the ones that are included pack quite the wollop of flavor: spicy, sweet, sour, and just about everything in between.

I've made it with both fresh and jarred lemongrass, and both versions are delicious and perfect for a light and satisfying after-work meal. I serve it with red rice (pictured here), or with brown rice stick noodles and this incredibly delicious salad.

My tofu of choice is Mori Nu extra firm silken tofu, which is so superior to the Nasoya stuff you get in the refrigerator section that it almost seems unfair that it is shelf-stable and pleasantly inexpensive. Once you try it, you'll never go back. The curry powder I use is a slightly sweet, but quite traditional Indian-style spice blend. It works beautifully, but something a little spicier would also be great. And finally, if you'd like to make this dish a bit more interesting, thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms make a wonderful addition to the mix - just add them to the pan a few minutes before tossing in the tofu.

One of the best parts of this dish is that once you've invested in a little jar of lemongrass, you'll probably have all of the ingredients on hand and ready to go, even when it's one of those nights when it seems like only the worst kind of shortcut can save your dinner. So go ahead and embrace the jar. And enjoy your tofu, while you're at it.

Lemongrass Tofu (serves 2-4)

2 tbs. vegetable oil
2 (12oz.) packages Mori Nu extra firm tofu, cubed
1 large onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
1 heaping tsp. minced lemongrass
3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
2-3 tsp. curry powder
2-4 tbs. fish sauce
splash of soy sauce, plus more to taste
5-6 shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional)
Chili-garlic or other Asian chili sauce, to taste (optional)


In a medium bowl, mix cubed tofu with garlic, 1/2 tsp. sugar, curry powder, fish sauce, and splash of soy sauce. Set aside. Meanwhile, heat oil in a wok or large skillet. Add lemongrass and sliced onion, and stir fry for a few minutes. Sprinkle a tsp. of sugar over the onions, and continue to cook, allowing them to soften and caramelize, about 10min. more. If using mushrooms, add them to pan and continue cooking. If necessary, add some soy sauce or a bit of water to deglaze the pan and prevent mixture from burning. Once onions are sufficiently soft, add tofu mixture to pan and stir fry for 3-5min. more, until tofu is heated through. Add chili sauce, if desired, and adjust for salt by adding a bit more soy sauce, if necessary. Serve immediately with rice or noodles.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A New Year, and a Promise Kept

Well hello, blogging! Nice to see you again after an extended Christmas/New Year's break.

As Jonathan and I tend to do whenever we have a few free days, we escaped to San Francisco for the holidays, and this time had the chance to stick around there for almost two weeks. So, that meant a total of three trips to the Ferry Building farmers market, several walks and jogs to the Golden Gate Bridge, two(!!!) visits to Chez Panisse, one organic, 100% grass-fed beef hot dog on an Acme roll (for Jonathan), and a whole heck of a lot of sitting in that lovely California traffic that I love so much.

[Jonathan eating his organic hot dog, from a cart near the Golden Gate Bridge]

All in all, a great trip, although being out of my kitchen and without a camera made the whole blogging thing a bit difficult. In fact, I even skipped out of December's Daring Bakers Challenge - both a sad and a rare event. Don't worry though, I'll be back for January's challenge (and not just because it is a wee bit easier than December's buche).

But no matter, it's a new year, and that means that everybody in the blogosphere has traded sugar for spinach, butter for brussels sprouts, and cream for carrots. Healthy food is the order of the day, and it's something I both love to make, and, especially at this time of year, love to eat. No more cookies for a good long time, I hope. Well, at least for another week.

The things is, though, I did promise a cookie recipe in my last post, and it would truly be cruel not to include one after my protracted ode to all things buttery and sugary. Besides, the cookie recipe I had in mind is a rather light one made with whole wheat flour, and could be used for any occasion (not just Christmas). So, I'll go ahead and post it, and this time, my promise for a future post will be a hearty and healthy recipe that can be enjoyed despite any New Year's resolution-type restrictions.

Remember those linzer-looking cookies from my photos in the last post? Well, they are really just sandwich cookies made with an incredibly versatile and tasty cookie dough. I originally formulated the recipe last year, in an attempt to make a reasonably healthy Hamantaschen. The result was a less-sweet sugar cookie that has the slightly earthy flavor of whole wheat, the essence of fruit and vanilla, and a mild flavor that pairs perfectly with chocolate or jam.

For my Christmas cookie basket, I slathered some of these little cookie coins with royal icing, and used the rest to make grapefruit marmalade sandwiches. The bitter grapefruit gave these cookies a sophisticated feel which I liked quite a bit, but they are also great plain, dunked in tea, or sandwiched with any number of other fillings (did I mention chocolate?)

Don't be fooled; these aren't the healthiest treats that have ever appeared on this blog (and that would be quite a feat, indeed), but for cookies, they aren't bad, with not too much butter, just enough sugar, and of course, my beloved whole-grain flour. For Christmas, Purim, or whatever other holiday you can dream up as an excuse to make cookies, these are just right.

Just Sweet Enough Cookie Dough

3 c. white whole wheat or whole wheat pastry flour (or a combination)
2/3 c. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 eggs
6 tbs. butter, softened
1/2 c. smooth applesauce (or use baby food)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
icing, marmalade, or chocolate ganache, if desired, for filling

In bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light. Add eggs, applesauce, and extracts, and mix until well combined. Mix flour with salt and baking powder in a separate bowl, and then add mixture to the wet ingredients in 3 additions, mixing well after each. Divide dough in two and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for an hour or so, until dough is firm enough to roll. Using a floured rolling pin and board, roll out dough to about 1/4 inch. Use cookie cutters to cut desired shapes, and bake cookies at 375 degrees F for 7-10 minutes, until they are just golden on the bottom. Allow to cool, and then frost with royal icing or sandwich together with ganache or marmalade.