The summer of 2006 was a big one for me. It’s the pivot point in my life that I would point to, if asked, and say “That’s the summer that changed everything.”
It was the summer between the two years I spent in Arizona for graduate school. It was the summer I traveled to India for the first time in over a decade. It was the summer I spent more time with my parents than I had since I lived in their house. It was the summer my twin godsons were born, the summer I spent living with them & their parents, an extra pair of hands in the diaper-changing rotation, offering bottles and lullabies to tiny six-week-olds. It was a magical, luminous summer that haunts and carries me because it suddenly, at the end, became the summer that my father died.
Before everything changed, I began the quest to make exceptional granola because I was spending my days with two regular granola-eaters: my mama, and Stephen, the twins’ dad. Both of them purchased boxed versions which seemed bland and sad. I was convinced that I could do better. Turns out, I can. And you can too.
Granola is infinitely adaptable in terms of the fruits, nuts, spices, and flavorings involved; since that summer, I’ve made a dozen varieties, customizing one blend for a friend who loves dried cherries with cashews, packing others full of dried pineapple and toasted coconut.
What I’ve learned is that there are a few principles or guidelines that, when applied, insure that your homemade granola will kick store bought granola’s ass:
a) Always pre-toast any nuts you are using. They’ll add much more flavor and hold up better in milk, yogurt, etc.
b) If you’re using dried fruit, add it at the very end of baking or it will dry out. If the fruit you’re using seems extra-dry, pre-soak it in a few tablespoons of fruit juice or even water to re-constitute.
c) Spice the granola beyond what seems like a reasonable amount. Whenever someone asks to watch me make my granola, I illicit a “Wow, that’s a lot!” when tossing in heaps of cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom. Of course, I get a second “Wow, this is good!” that proves my point—spice so that you can see the color of the oats change.
d) When combining the dry ingredients with the liquid, make certain every bit of granola becomes wet before you bake it. If you need to extend your liquid, try a fruit juice, such as apple, which adds flavor but not fat.
I suppose granola has become, for me, a relic from a wild, lightning-strike kind of summer, a connection to that strange bridge of time where two lives were starting and one was ending, a creation that feels almost like an act of faith. One of my last memories of my dad is as he came downstairs from his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon baths, which always followed his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon naps.
Once she heard the water drain upstairs, my father singing along to old Indian music, my mother would put the teakettle on for afternoon tea. I had just taken my first batch of granola out of the oven. My father, who loved all things related to food (hi, genetics) but never falsely praised anything I did, especially anything I cooked, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a hot handful, chomped around and said, “Hey Nito, this is pretty good.”
Indeed it is.
BASIC GRANOLA FORMULA
I’m calling it a “formula” and not a “recipe” for a reason; use what you like or what you have around. Play with flavor combinations! Whatever you do, I guarantee it will taste better than anything that comes in a box. If you’d like more hard-and-fast measurements, please see my two flavor combinations below*
4 cups old-fashioned oats (do NOT use quick-cooking)
¾ cup steel-cut oats (you could easily leave these out and simply increase the amount of old-fashioned oats to 4 ½ cups)
¾ to 1 cup toasted, unsalted nuts (if you only have salted on-hand, don’t add additional salt to the granola)
¼ cup each wheat germ & flaxseed meal (you can find these in the bulk aisles of health food stores & conventional groceries have also started carrying the Bob’s Red Mill versions of these products, but again, they’re not deal breakers)
generous amounts of good-quality spices in any combination you like
1 tsp. salt
5-6 T unsalted butter
½ cup canola or similarly mild-flavored oil (I’ve used safflower in the past)
½ cup brown sugar OR maple syrup
vanilla or other flavoring such as orange, almond, etc. (quantity will vary from 1 tsp- 2 T depending on the potency of flavoring)
oven: 325° to start
pan: two foil-lined, sprayed baking sheets (this will make your life so much easier when cleanup rolls around)
Combine dry ingredients in a very large bowl. Melt the butter in a small saucepan; remove from heat, then add the rest of the liquid ingredients and whisk together.
Using a spatula, pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients and fold it all together, taking the time to ensure that each piece has been coated.
Spread the granola out in thin layers on the baking sheets. Depending on the size of your baking sheets, you may need to bake in two batches. Do not pile granola on the baking sheets or it won’t cook evenly!
Bake for 20 minutes at 325°, then turn the oven down to 300° and remove the baking sheets from the oven to stir the granola with a wooden spoon or spatula, just to bring the browner edge pieces into the middle and the center stuff out to the edge.
Add dried fruit at this point, if using, and place the baking sheets back in the oven on opposite racks from the first round of baking (moving the previous top sheet to the bottom and the bottom sheet to top). Bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until granola is light golden brown and incredibly fragrant.
Cool on racks before storing in an airtight container for up to several weeks. It’s delicious with fresh fruit, milk or soymilk, on top of yogurt or ice cream!
*These are the variations I made most recently; I actually measured what I did so I could share with you here! Both versions turned out lovely, though the first is definitely more traditional, the latter more exotic.
1 cup toasted, chopped almonds
1 cup dried cranberries
½ cup brown sugar
2 T vanilla extract (doubling the amount make the flavor more pronounced)
2 T cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cloves
1 cup toasted, chopped pecans
1 cup dried cherries, chopped
1 cup dried coconut, dry-toasted in a skillet (if you use sweetened, cut the maple syrup in half)
½ cup maple syrup
1 T orange flower water, also called orange blossom water*
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. nutmeg
*This is a potentially tricky ingredient; I had it in my pantry from a recent trip to a Middle Eastern grocery. If you don’t want to go out and get it, but still want the orange flavor, you could use 1 tsp of orange extract or a squeeze half an orange into the liquid ingredients.