Wait, did I order the oatmeal?
One early morning on my way to school, Nathan and I stopped by Flour to have breakfast. They make a not-too-sweet granola with sesame seeds and wheat germ, and I love eating it with milk because the toasted oats and nuts impart a slight sweet and earthy flavor to the milk. Anticipating a delicious bowl of granola, I sleepily ordered the oatmeal and then patiently waited for my bowl of deliciousness. When I finally picked it up, I sadly turned to Nathan and asked in surprise, “Wait, did I order the oatmeal?!”
I have a propensity to confuse “oatmeal” with “granola.” In my mind, oat-like foods served with milk are “granola,” and oat-like foods served mostly dry are “oatmeal.” I wasn’t actually terribly sad about the mistake. I do like both oatmeal and granola, and Flour makes one of the best oatmeals that I know about. They cook their steel-cut oats with whole milk (and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me cream, though the Flour recipe book makes no mention of cream) and serve it with toasted almonds and fruit compote. I’d rank Flour’s oatmeal either first or second on my list next to the oatmeal from Two Guns Espresso, which they indulgently prepare with coconut milk, honey, toasted almonds, and banana slices. But, enough about oatmeal; back to the granola.
I love eating granola for breakfast because it has so many different flavors and textures, and it pairs well with coffee. I’ve experimented with a variety of recipes, drawing ideas broadly from the likes of Trader Joe’s (I enjoy the pecans in their maple pecan granola and the crunchiness of their clusters, though I think that their clusters are actually mashed up crispy bits of cereal/corn flakes), Alton Brown (who created an episode of Good Eats on oats and gave me the initial set of ingredient ratios that I started my granola experiments with), Flour (which gave me the idea to try adding sesame seeds and wheat germ), and 3 Little Figs (which gave me the idea to serve the granola on yogurt with fruit compote and honey as a delicious alternative to milk). In aggregate, I’ve learned that I like my granola with whole oats instead of corn-based clusters; more nuts than oats; wheat germ for the substance that it adds to my breakfast; maple syrup for its fragrance; maple syrup as the only sweetener because granola doesn’t need to be extremely sweet; cinnamon and nutmeg as complementary secondary notes; fruit of some variety, either compote or fresh cut; and honey, if yogurt.
Each week, we make at least one batch of granola which covers a half baking sheet and is usually enough for about eight servings. The abstract granola formula is simple and requires a single half-cup scoop. I usually combine four scoops of oats with a scoop each of all desired dry ingredients with exception to sesame seeds, cranberries, and spices. I add in a handful of sesame seeds (a scoop is excessive) before toasting and mix in a handful of dried cranberries after toasting to keep the cranberries from drying out. Almonds always make it into the mixing bowl, and we’ve had success with all combinations of walnuts, pistachios, cashews, and pecans. We typically try to limit the extravagance of the granola by limiting the number of “other” nuts to two. To finish, we grate in nutmeg and cinnamon, toss in a little salt, and stir all of the dry ingredients together with safflower oil, maple syrup, and a little vanilla until the entire mixture darkens slightly. I occasionally will lick the spoon at the end after stirring and removing all of the oats and nuts, but I must admit that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this last step because the safflower oil and maple syrup combination sans oats is not exactly tremendously tasty.
When I started making granola, I had many unsubstantiated ideas about great granola. For example, I thought that using extra virgin olive oil would make the granola taste better. I have since learned that if in fact extra virgin olive oil does make granola taste better, I cannot tell the difference. Now we use safflower oil because I have it on hand for cooking in a wok, because it has a higher smoking point, and because it is less extravagant than extra virgin olive oil. We also used to mix everything together directly on the baking sheet to save from having to wash an extra bowl. However, Nathan’s mom recently convinced us that premixing in a bowl helps distribute the wheat germ better, so now we stir everything together in a bowl.
For the actual baking portion, to evenly toast everything (golden-brown coconut strips act as a natural indicator that the granola is done), we used to stir once every fifteen minutes for an hour and a half with the oven running at 275°F degrees. On a whim one day, I tried reducing the temperature to 225°F degrees and not stirring for two hours. The coconut strips came out golden brown as expected, the pistachios did not burn, and after the tray cooled, the sheet of granola unexpectedly broke apart into fun, bite-sized chunks! I’ve also tried toasting at higher temperatures to see if this would draw out more flavor, but I have only ever ended up with slightly-too-toasty granola for these experiments. Given these outcomes, now we always take the lazy route and leave the baking sheet in the oven for two hours without stirring, and we are always rewarded with perfectly toasted granola chunks at the end!