Sunday, February 26, 2012

My “I don’t have to eat mass produced energy bars anymore” Granola Bars

I try to deny it, but I am often faced with the reality that every one in my family needs food that can be consumed on the run. Kids must bring a snack every day to school (usually eaten at warp speed on the playground). Most afterschool activities, whether cultural or athletic, occur between 3 and 7 pm; without an afternoon snack on hand, kids come home gnawing on their water bottles. And sometimes I just find myself inconveniently stuck in the car, famished.

Given that portable snacks are an inevitable modern necessity, energy bars have crept into my house. There’s a wall of them at every grocery store, and my house has settled on one brand that provides a quick calorie fix, but is lacking in flavor. After choking down one of these nameless bars a few weeks ago, I became determined to make a bar made from scratch that was comparable in terms of fat and sugar but tasted better.

I started with this chewy granola bar recipe, since they are whole grain and can be flexible in terms of ingredients. The first attempt was tasty: I included almonds, coconut, dried cranberries and chocolate chips. But how do they stack up in terms of the numbers? I made a comparison of the sugar and fat content of my bars with the nutrition label on the name brand energy bar. My first round was admittedly higher in fat and sugar (I have to point out that even at their sugariest, my bars still have far less sugar than flavored milks).

For my next attempts, I (sadly) lost the coconut and nixed the nuts (making them school-friendly). I replaced some of the honey with light corn syrup, and swapped the butter for canola oil. I settled on chocolate chips and dried cherries, and voila! The end result has only one more gram of sugar and two more grams of fat than the store bought comparison bar. They are nut free and, if you find the right oats, gluten free. These bars take 5 minutes to mix, 30 minutes to bake, and cost far less than $1 a piece (the price for many energy bars). But best of all, my bars have something those manufactured energy bars can’t have: flavor and texture. Lots of it. That’s worth the extra two grams of fat to me.

Don’t like cherries? Try another dried fruit. Don’t like chocolate chips? Skip them (then put that yummy coconut back in). If nuts are not an issue, by all means replace the chocolate chips with them. But give these a try. They make for some truly enjoyable snacking.

My Granola Bars

1 2/3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1/3 cup oat flour (can use rolled oats ground in a blender or food processor)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 t. salt

1/2 cup unsweetened cherries, roughly chopped

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

5 T. canola oil

3 T. water

4 T. light corn syrup

2 T. honey

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8x8 inch baking pan with parchment paper (Spray the pan lightly with cooking spray, lay down one sheet in one direction, spray again, and lay down a second sheet cross ways. Spray the top sheet lightly with cooking spray).

Mix oats, oat flour, brown sugar, salt, cherries, and chocolate chips in one bowl. Whisk together canola oil, water, corn syrup and honey in another bowl. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients. Stir until all dry ingredients are moistened.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan, pressing down on the batter to spread it to the edges. Bake 30-40 minutes until browned.

Cool thoroughly, at least one hour. Remove the bars from the pan using the parchment paper as a “sling.” Cut into 12 pieces (a serrated knife helps here, and if they aren’t cooled thoroughly they can crumble). Store individually wrapped or in an airtight container. They can also be frozen. They keep four days (although they haven’t lasted that long at my house).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cutting Off the Flow

Recently the USDA passed new regulations concerning the school food programs, based on the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. While the regulations are not perfect (they still allow pizza to count as a vegetable, for example), their passage is mostly good news for getting healthier lunches at school made with ingredients sourced nearby when possible.  

Reading about the new regulations got me thinking. About milk. About flavored milk specifically. And about the Arlington Schools, where my two kids attend. I love my kids’ schools. The teachers and staff are fantastic, and my kids have thrived. But I’m going to come out and say it: our public schools should not be serving chocolate milk every day. Or strawberry milk. One 8 ounce serving of those chocolate babies has 25 grams of sugar. And the kids who eat breakfast at school can get a double dose every day. 

Massachusetts has passed new nutrition standards that will require schools to phase out most flavored milk anyway by 2013. So why wait? Even though Arlington may have a low rate of obesity among its kids compared to the rest of Massachusetts, 10% of Arlington kids are still overweight. We can do better.

Some critics, namely from the dairy industry, say kids need their calcium and if chocolate milk is the only way to get it, then so be it. But I’m not sure milk is the holy grail of nutrition. In fact for millennia humans consumed animal milk products only in soured form; the idea of drinking non-soured milk has developed only since the mid-1800s and was fueled by the discovery of pasteurization. These new non-soured products with higher levels of lactose highlighted that many humans are in fact lactose intolerant, something the dairy industry glosses over as it tries to sell milk as nature’s perfect food (for a fascinating read on the history of milk consumption check out Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages). The bottom line is that are plenty of alternative edible vehicles for calcium and protein, like veggies, grains, nuts and seeds, and soured milk products like cheese and yogurt.

I don’t think kids should never drink chocolate milk. They just shouldn’t have the opportunity to drink it every day at school. We have become an eating culture where eating in restaurants and 800 calorie beverages have become daily occurrences. The school that ban cupcakes on birthdays but still serves flavored milk every day has it backwards. We need to treat treats as treats, not as daily expectations. Schools can help reinforce that message right now.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Facing The Kitchen Demons

I have had my share of kitchen disasters. I’ve cut my fingers and burnt pans so badly I threw them out. I’ve overcooked and undercooked food. I’ve left out key ingredients, made bread that doesn’t rise, polenta with lumps, and puddings that puddle. I once gave my secret banana bread recipe to a friend and mistakenly wrote 3/4 cup of baking soda instead of 3/4 teaspoon (I choose to think that the resulting volcano of batter was actually her disaster, not mine). A week ago I had a glass dish explode in the oven. That was a first for me.

My mom is my biggest culinary inspiration. She was among the first women to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, and the first woman to grace the kitchen at New York’s La Grenouille. But even she had her days. At La Grenouille, where I’m sure she wasn’t feeling any pressure to perform, she was in charge of soufflés. At some point in her tenure, her soufflés stopped working. She still served them, but they weren’t what they were supposed to be. For about a week, she had a black soufflé cloud over her head. And just like that, it cleared up. She never figured out the problem, but at least the owner didn’t have to come make the soufflés for her (as he supposedly did once for a previous chef).

I find my mom’s tenacity comforting, especially when faced with my own challenges. The bane of my existence in cooking school was pie crust, or pâte brisée in French (which means “short pastry”). Good crust should be simultaneously flaky and tender, and achieving that balance frightens many a cook. Culinary school students learn to make a crust by hand using only flour, salt, butter, and ice water. Sounds simple enough, but mine never quite turned out. Some were so tough I couldn’t cut them, and some fell apart. I panicked, I practiced, I obsessed. Going into my final exam, I had myself all frothed up that I was going to pull a pâte brisée to bake. But I didn’t. And then I graduated.

I really want to make my crusts just like centuries of pastry makers have done, but I have finally found the key for me is using my stand mixer. That, and including an ingredient like sour cream or egg yolks that has enough fat to coat the gluten in the flour and ensure tenderness.

My favorite pâte brisée recipe these days come from Flour, a stellar baking cookbook. This recipe works every time, and it’s so versatile I put sweet and savory fillings in it. Often it's the basis for a quiche, a great vehicle for a pantry meal. This week's quiche had frozen spinach plus some leftover goat cheese and pesto. Fast and yummy.

So I finally feel that I have conquered the crust, but I am sure other culinary catastrophes await me. I say, bring them on.