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Of all foods that can be classified as "un-sexy"--beef stew, cole slaw, banana pudding--it is perhaps granola whose reputation is most chaste.
Granola is the quintessential health food, no matter how unhealthy today's average serving of granola really is. It often resembles something for scooping into a feed bag, and its dry crunch needs a little milk or yogurt to round out the edges. Granola does not party, it does not seduce, and it most certainly does not astonish.
And yet, I confess that granola is on the short list of my very favorite foods. It composes my breakfast, along with a big scoop of yogurt and a spoonful of honey, most mornings. And as someone who has eaten granola from a tender age, I am something of a connoisseur. As a matter of fact, I have been developing my personal granola recipe--my granola ideal, if you will--for five years and counting. I am very protective of my granola recipe, and so unfortunately cannot share it here (bwahaha), but I am willing to share a recipe that is almost as good, and that is far better than anything you can buy in the bulk bins at your health food store.
My ideal granola is simple--oats, nuts, seeds. There should be a sweetener, and for flavor I prefer sorghum or maple; honey in a pinch. For maximum crunch and to achieve those delightful clusters, the mixture does need a little sugar or brown sugar. There is also oil involved. I used to think that butter gave the best flavor, but of late I have taken to using olive oil, an unlikely but truly fabulous pairing. Safflower, or another flavorless oil is also an option. Finally, there must be salt. The best granola is salty-sweet, in my opinion, and never cloying.
Our latest batch of granola has travelled with us across the country, and is no worse for the wear. On the road, a good breakfast is crucial. Hotel breakfasts, with their soggy waffles and thawed quasi-Danishes, are a vaguely sad way of beginning what should be a day of adventure and wonder. I find that homemade granola rectifies this situation, needing only a small container of yogurt or a cup of milk to stand alone as breakfast.
On using flax in granola: Whole flax seeds are impossible to digest, so don't waste money by adding them whole to granola. Ground flax seeds go rancid quickly, so I don't recommend adding them to batches of granola either. If you like the protein and fatty acids that flax supplies, feel free to add flax meal to individual servings of granola. This prevents the premature expiration of your granola and gives it a last-minute nutritional boost.
Granola is incredibly versatile. Feel free to substitute your favorite nuts and seeds. You may also like to add in some dried fruit or candied ginger once the granola has cooled. When I'm feeling really decadent or just undisciplined, I'll add cacao nibs and pistachios. You may also want to add some spices--cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, black pepper, and cardamom would all be at home here, as would a less spicy garam masala. You may also omit the milk powder for an only slightly different result.
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Scatter over a large rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven about 15 minutes, stirring frequently:
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
Mix in a large bowl:
11⁄2 cups wheat germ
1⁄2 cup dry milk powder (I used half nonfat milk powder and half malted milk powder--don't forget that powdered milk is the msg of baking, in a good way)
1 cup coarsely chopped almonds
1 cup shredded or flaked unsweetened coconut
1⁄2 cup sesame seeds
1 cup hulled sunflower seeds and/or pumpkin seeds
Heat in a small saucepan over low heat for 5 minutes:
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
1⁄2 cup honey or maple syrup
Stir the honey mixture into the wheat germ mixture. Combine with the toasted oats. Spread in a thin layer on the baking sheet (use 2 pans if necessary) and toast, stirring frequently, 45 minutes, or until all the ingredients are toasted. Let cool, then store in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to 1 month.