Monday, March 23, 2015

Gnocchi Guru Evan Kleiman Dishes on Italian Staple

Evan Kleiman mixing Beet-Ricotta Gnocchi.

When I heard that KCRW "Good Food" host, author and chef Evan Kleiman was going to teach a class on making gnocchi at New School of Cooking in Culver City, I just had to sign up. I've been an avid listener to Kleiman's radio show since its inception in 1997; it's a smart, provocative and deeply satisfying mix of interviews, reviews and culinary exploration that excites the brain as much as the taste buds. 

A sheet of potato gnocchi shaped by the students.
The "Good Food" host, who often mentions her deep love of Italian cooking, has authored several cookbooks on the subject and ran a beloved L.A. restaurant, Angeli Caffe, which closed in 2012 after 28 years.

Until I took this class, I'd never attempted to make gnocchi (pronounced nyawk-ee). In fact, my household has become rather carb-phobic of late, with pasta and gnocchi seldom making an appearance. When gnocchi does show up, it's often the shelf-stable potato variety from Trader Joe's--quite good, but, no surprise, fresh is far superior.





"I don't believe in giving out recipes before class," Chef Kleiman announced as about 16 of us, perched on stools next to stainless-steel counters, looked on. "You have one opportunity to watch me and the rest of your life to look at the recipe."

Point taken. Our teacher was fun to watch--completely absorbed in what she was doing, yet imparting little gems of wisdom along the way to the room full of would-be sous chefs. Three hours sounds like a fair chunk of time, but it passes rather quickly when you're making three types of gnocchi, plus a meat sauce (Ragù alla Bolognese). 

Semolina Gnocchi (Gnocchi alla Romana).
These are baked rather than boiled.


Of course it was Evan Kleiman who did most of the work, assisted by several members of New School's culinary staff. We pitched in when asked--cutting out semolina gnocchi (Gnocchi alla Romana) with small round cookie cutters; mixing the potato, flour and egg gnocchi (Gnocchi di Patate) with bench scrapers and our hands; shaping the small beet and ricotta "gnocchetti" into tiny pink balls and rolling them in flour. It was particularly satisfying when we finally sat down to sample the bounty we'd help create.

Mixing potato and flour for Potato Gnocchi.

Here are a few tips I gleaned from the class, though I'm sure there are many more I can't decipher from my beet- and flour-stained notebook.

1. The key to success in making gnocchi is allowing the mixture to stand for several hours or overnight--usually in the refrigerator--to absorb the liquid. (This is also true of other dumpling-like doughs, such as matzo balls.) If you don't allow the mixture to chill enough, it won't hold together in the hot liquid.

2. Always do a "boil test" with a few gnocchi before dumping all of them in. When they float to the top, they're ready. Make sure that water is at least simmering when you put the gnocchi (potato or cheese) in.

3. Making potato gnocchi is a more like making pie dough than kneading bread. When you add flour, you want to mix it in to create a dough, but avoid working it so much that you activate the gluten, as you would when making bread.

4. Ms. Kleiman used baked beets that were peeled and grated in her beet-ricotta gnocchi, which created gorgeous fuchsia-colored little rounds of cheesy dough. Golden beets, spinach or carrots would be good alternatives--and would add their own beautiful hues.

5. The ricotta cheese gnocchi can be made with almost no flour or with almond flour or potato flour if you want to make them gluten-free. 

6. The key to ricotta gnocchi is using the right ricotta. "Don't use American ricotta as it's too wet and will require too much flour," Kleiman said. (Her preferred varieties are listed in the recipe below.)

7. A pressure cooker is invaluable for cutting the time required to make an excellent sauce that tastes like the flavors have melded for at least a day, even though it has only cooked for an hour. Kleiman's favorite brand is Fagor, which claims that its pressure cookers can reduce the cooking time as much as 70%.

Potato gnocchi are particularly satisfying to make because "you never have to measure anything," Kleiman said. You just rice baked potatoes (minus skin) in a food mill or ricer with fine holes, dust with flour while still warm, add egg and mix with care (see Step 3 above). It's also possible to leave out the egg.

And finally, as she watched her class making gnocchi for the first time--some rolling the balls of dough a little too small, others a bit too large, some making it too wet, others kneading too much--Kleiman seemed undismayed.

"Cooking's a craft. You only get good at it by using your hands over and over again," she said. "It's very satisfying if it comes out right. If it doesn't, you eat it anyway. You eat your mistakes." 

Here's a link to Kleiman's recipe for Semolina Gnocchi, along with other recipes on the New School of Cooking blog. The semolina variety was the only one of the three that was baked, not boiled. Below are her recipes for Beet-Ricotta Dumplings, Potato Gnocchi and Ragù alla Bolognese.  All are taken almost verbatim from the handout our hard-working chef finally allowed us to have after we'd watched her create culinary magic in front of our eyes. 

Fuchsia or magenta? Whatever you call it, the gnocchi are delicious!

Evan Kleiman's Preface to the Beet-Ricotta Recipe:

I'm giving you the recipe for the Beet Ricotta because they are so special, but really the recipe is the same whatever condiment you use (like sautéed zucchini). The only difference is how much additional flour you might need to add because of the additional moisture in the "condiments." Or you can make them totally plain. When I do that, I always add a little grating of fresh nutmeg. The default finishing of all these gnocchi is melted or brown butter and Parmesan. You can add sage to the butter or a sprig of rosemary for flavor.

You can make the "batter" up to 2 days ahead, and you can form the balls one day ahead. Because the moisture content of the ricotta varies, always make a tester of your mixture before you form all the balls.

These beet "gnocchetti" are a revelation. The color is intense, the flavor earthy and sweet and the texture has that kind of disappearing "cloud in the mouth" effect--the perfect recipe when you need to wow people, especially those who think they hate beets. Boy will they change their minds! 

Beet-Ricotta Dumplings 

Serves: 6-10 depending on appetite and size of menu

Ingredients:

2 medium or 4 small red beets, washed
2 pounds dry Italian ricotta*
2 whole eggs
2 cups grated imported Parmesan cheese, plus more for the table
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (more if needed) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dredging
1 pound butter
2 bunches fresh sage leaves removed from the stems

*Use the Angelo & Franco brand from Whole Foods or the Gioa brand at Italian markets.

Directions:

1. Wrap washed beets in aluminum foil and place on baking sheet. Bake in 450 degree oven until tender--approximately 45 minutes.

2. Remove from the oven and let beets cool. Slip the skins off with your hands. Grate beets into a mixing bowl on the large hold of a box grater. 

3. Add the ricotta, eggs, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to the beets.

4. Mix slowly in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment or with a spoon until combined. (Beware of colorful splashes from the bowl!) 

5. Add 1 cup flour and mix again. Set the mixture aside for a minimum of 2 hours in the refrigerator. It can be made up to two days ahead.

6. To form the gnocchetti, roll a small walnut-sized piece of mixture into a little ball.

7. Drop it onto a shallow pan (pie pan or cookie sheet) covered with enough flour to coat all sides of the balls.

8. Lay each dumpling on a parchment-lined baking sheet, lightly covered with flour. Continue forming the gnocchetti until all the mixture is gone. You can then refrigerate the little dumplings up to one day in advance.

9. Just before you are ready to serve, melt the butter together with the sage leaves in a skillet. Let the butter lightly brown. The sage leaves should be nice and crispy. Set the brown butter and sage aside while you cook the gnocchetti.

10. Slip the gnocchetti into a pot of simmering, salted water. Wait until they float to the surface of the water and continue to cook for an additional minute. 

11. Using a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchetti from the water as they are done. Place them on a serving platter. Once all the gnocchetti are on the platter, top with melted butter and crispy sage, plus a liberal dusting of Parmesan cheese. Serve to oohs and aahs!

Sheets of gnocchi awaiting their hot bath.


Potato Gnocchi 

(Gnocchi di Patate)


Ingredients:

2 pounds mixture of russet and Yukon or other yellow-fleshed potatoes, scrubbed

300-350 grams 00 flour or all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 eggs, beaten*


*For a recipe without eggs, check out Marco Canora's preparation.

Making potato gnocchi.

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick potatoes and place directly on metal oven racks.  Bake potatoes until soft and yielding.

2. Remove baked potatoes from oven and carefully remove the peel.  The potatoes will, of course, be very hot.  Press through a food mill or potato ricer onto a floured board, preferably wood.


3. Chop up the potato further using a bench scraper, then sprinkle flour and a little egg over dough that isn't too wet. The goal is to control moisture so you don’t have to add too much flour, which has gluten and will cause tough gnocchi in large quantities.

4. Cut off a manageable chunk of dough and roll it into a 1-inch diameter snake.  Cut snake into pieces between 1/2 and 1 inch.  You may lightly score with fork tines or poke your index finger into each pillow making an indentation or you can use them as simply little pillows.

5. Lay the gnocchi on a parchment or plastic wrap lined tray and refrigerate until ready to use.  They should be cold.  You make also freeze them on the tray for later use, collecting them when hard for storage in a zip bag.

6. To cook, bring water to a boil, add salt, then turn heat to a simmer.  Add the gnocchi (if frozen do not defrost).  Gnocchi are done when they rise to the top of the water.  I usually let them cook another few seconds. 

7. Remove from water with a slotted spoon.  Lay spoon on a towel to collect additional water.  Serve on a platter with sauce of your choice.  You may also sauté them in butter like spåtzle after they are boiled.


Ragù alla Bolognese in a pressure cooker.


Ragù alla Bolognese*


Ingredients:

1 ounce dried porcini or 1 tablespoon porcini powder
2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 celery stalks, peeled and minced

2 carrots, peeled, trimmed and minced

1 onion, peeled and finely diced

Salt to taste

2 peeled garlic cloves, minced

2 lbs ground chuck or ground meat (not lean)

½ lb sweet Italian sausage

1 cup red wine

Small handful finely chopped Italian parsley

3 sage leaves, coarsely chopped

2 cups water or broth

1 can tomatoes in juice, blended 

Additional salt and pepper to taste

*Recipe calls for a pressure cooker, but I assume you could cook it without one just by adding more time. 



Directions:

1. Put the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with warm water.  Let dry mushrooms soak for 30 minutes. 

2. Sauté the celery, carrot and onions in butter and olive oil with salt to taste until they begin to soften.

3. While the vegetables are sautéing, put the ground meat and sausage in a bowl and add milk.  Stir to mix.  The meat should become fluffy.

4. When vegetables soften, add garlic and sauté until you smell the aroma.  Then add the ground meat and milk mixture and sauté until brown.

5. Add the wine, raise heat and cook off alcohol.  Add herbs, broth or water, tomatoes in juice and salt and pepper to taste.

6. Close the pressure cooker according to manufacturer directions.  Bring to high pressure and set to maintain pressure.  Cook for 1 hour, take off heat and let pressure reduce naturally.


A feast!












Monday, March 16, 2015

Got a Yen for Deli Food? Lenny's Is the Place!

Enough matzo ball soup for two! (Photos by Jefferson Graham)
A recent trip to see the delightful documentary "Deli Man" at the Royal in West Los Angeles left us craving deli fare--not exactly surprising, given the subject matter. Our initial plan was to go to Canter's, the beloved 84-year-old LA institution on Fairfax. But traffic and the logistics of bringing five hungry souls from disparate locations together on a Saturday night dictated a change in plans. We decided to save Canter's for another day and go to Lenny's Deli on Westwood Blvd. near Pico.

Casing the baked goods. (Photo from Lenny's website)

Lenny's opened about two years ago when another venerable deli, Junior's, shut its doors after 50-plus years. We'd lived a stone's throw away from Junior's when my son Sam was small and had loved the place--especially the glassed-in bakery counter where I'd often stop by on a Friday afternoon to pick up a loaf of challah, plus a butter cookie with rainbow sprinkles for my son and a giant black-and-white cookie for my husband. The counter is still there, enclosing the same tantalizing rows of cookies and pastries. The adjacent deli counter in the spacious entry also remains, with its long shelves replete with sliced meats, smoked fish, cheeses, pickles an other requisite deli fare. In fact, a lot about Lenny's looks very familiar. Same Naugahyde-seated booths with wavy glass  partitions, showbiz pics on the walls (we sat beneath a photo of Sammy Davis, Jr.). Was this Junior's redux?

Memphis "Piano" Joe plays his heart out.

Not quite. A jazz-playing keyboardist filled the place with music that made you want to dance and sing--or at least try to name that tune. Our waiter, Sixto, couldn't have been more different than the stereotypical sassy Jewish waitress who practically orders for you--he was as accommodating as could be, supplying us with generous portions of sliced half-sour pickles and sauerkraut, extra bowls and plates for splitting up the generous portions of soup and meat-filled sandwiches, takeout cartons for leftovers--all with a wide smile, as if we were his only customers, although the place was packed.

Lenny's Bagel Brunch Platter, with lox, whitefish and cod.
As for our food, we loved it all and ate beyond capacity, because that's what you do at a deli. We went for the traditional menu: matzo ball soup; corned beef, pastrami and turkey on rye (not together, of course); lox, whitefish, bagels and cream cheese. Then, stuffed though we were, we couldn't resist ordering a chocolate egg cream and a slice of carrot cake.

Not to hard to guess what this is.
Still, since a deli these days must be all things to all people, and this is, after all, LA, home to possibly the most health- and body-conscious population on the planet, the menu contains plenty of choices for the vegan and gluten-free set, such as Tofu Veggie Scramble and Kale Salad, plus sugar-free and gluten-free desserts. The menu proudly proclaims that Lenny's serves "cage-free eggs only!" and "organic or locally grown products" when available. However, though I was pleased to see a deli with a conscience, it didn't stop me and everyone else from eating as we pleased for one happy evening.




Here's the audio of what we thought of our visit to Lenny's. My hubby, Jefferson Graham, a tech writer, videographer and photographer for USA Today, couldn't resist taking over the microphone, but he's so good at it, I let him. You'll also hear from photographer Mike Ansell; his 93-year-old father, Norman, a deli connoisseur of longstanding; Jeff's mom, Judy Graham, a talented knitting guru with a popular YouTube channel, Knitting Tips by Judy; yours truly, and Jeff, who, by the way, took most of the pictures. I dedicate this post to him. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

'Deli Man' Paints Loving Portrait of Endangered Institution

Ziggy Gruber in front of the Royal Theatre sampling hamantaschen.
(Photo by Jefferson Graham)

The threatened culture of the Jewish delicatessen is affectionately portrayed in the new documentary, “Deli Man,” which opened this weekend in a handful of theaters across the country. We saw it at the Royal in West Los Angeles, where the smell of pickles and pastrami that happy audience members had purchased from the Canter's truck parked outside the theater only heightened the experience.

If you're a fan of matzo ball soup and pastrami on rye--heck, even if you aren't--you will love this movie. It's funny, it's touching, it's a history and a revelation. And it won't make you fat, but it will cause you to make a beeline for the nearest deli (assuming you can find one) in search of some corned beef and kreplach. It made me want to open a deli myself--except that it's clear from the film that it's a daunting, all-but-impossible business these days that only crazy-in-love deli men (and they do all seem to be men) like the doc's star, David "Ziggy" Gruber would even attempt.

As the filmmakers point out—kosher (or "kosher style"--i.e., Jewish) delis are an endangered species, with perhaps as few as 150 left in a country that used to have thousands. Surprisingly, there are a number of third-generation deli men like Ziggy for whom preserving the deli--which dates back more than 160 years to German-Jewish immigrants--is almost a religion. A former New Yorker, Ziggy runs Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen Restaurant, a thriving deli in Houston, Texas, astonishing those of us who imagine that Jewish culture and food exist only on the coasts.  

The film does a great job taking us behind the scenes as Ziggy hand slices his Nova lox, adds Manischewitz wine to his veal chops, kibitzes with his customers and jokes with his mostly Spanish-speaking employees, whom he calls his family. As one of the workers points out, Ziggy, who was inspired to continue the deli tradition by his grandfather, who ran New York's famous Rialto Delicatessen on Broadway, has a very big heart. To me, he seems like an old soul in a young body, a man on a mission to save Jewish delis and a food that was part of a culture wiped out by the Holocaust for future generations.

Ziggy's deli isn't the only one we visit in this film, the third in a Jewish documentary trilogy by Erik Greenberg Anjou. There are proprietors of establishments in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Florida, Chicago and Toronto, many, like Ziggy, third-generation. All point out how difficult it is to deal with rising costs and dietary changes that are threatening the deli culture of old, where schmaltz (chicken fat), as one author pointed out, was "the WD-40 of the kosher kitchen." But this account leaves out how very funny, nostalgic and inspiring this film is. Among those weighing in on their love of delis old and new are Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Larry King and Freddie Roman. Go see it. Then repair to your nearest deli to nourish your inner fresser (glutton).

Ziggy appeared at the Royal on opening night, taking part in a lively Q&A that demonstrated that interest in deli food and culture is definitely alive and well--at least in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to meet the real-life deli man, pictured above sampling some of my hamantaschen, which I just happened bring to the opening. “These are very good,” he said, pulling another from the bag. Hmmm... There may a future for me yet in the deli biz. 



Note: "Deli Man" made us so hungry we went to Lenny's Deli in West L.A. Read all about it here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Is It a Hat? A Pocket? A Cookie? It's a Hamantasch!





Purim,  sometimes called the Jewish Halloween because it involves costumes and treats, arrives this year on the evening of March 4. While I may not head for the local synagogue to listen to a reading of the "megillah"--the traditional recitation of the biblical story of Esther and how she saved her people from the villainous Haman--I can never resist the urge to make hamantaschen, the filled triangle-shaped cookies associated with this ancient holiday. The cookie's name is Yiddish for Haman's pockets, but when I was growing up, we were always told it meant Haman's hat, so I pictured this bad guy with a tricornered hat filled with prunes and nuts, which is what my mother used to put in the pastries. In Israel, the cookies are called oznei Haman, or Haman's ears. In any case, they represent some part of this very wicked man, who, according to the story, had convinced the king of 5th-century B.C.E. Persia to let him exterminate all the Jews--until Esther, the king's wife, who just happened to be Jewish, persuaded him to get rid of Haman instead.
One of the most joyous of Jewish holidays, customs on this day include dressing up as the key characters in the Purim tale, exchanging gifts of food and drink, donating to the poor, reciting the story of Esther (in other words, the whole megillah!), and--my favorite--making and eating hamantaschen.




The cookies are a bit of work but a lot of fun to make. Traditionally, they often contained poppy seed (mohn) or prune or apricot (lekvar) fillings, but there's a lot of room for creativity. A quick search on Pinterest yielded myriad variations on the triangular pastry, from rainbow hamantaschen to taco and s'more hamantaschen (graham cracker crust filled with marshmallow fluff and chocolate).

There were even more variations on how to shape the cookies into the requisite three-corner shape without having the cookies open up while baking and/or erupt like mini volcanoes. On her blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen, Tori Avey gives an excellent step-by-step description of how to fold the cookies in a sort of triangular pouch that remains intact in the oven. I prefer the "pinch" method, which, after a bit of practice, I've found works beautifully. You can play around. But there are a few principles that make the difference between a happy hamantasch experience and one that makes you give up and reach for the nearest Girl Scout Thin Mint. (But should you have a yen for one, you're in luck--there's actually a recipe for chocolate mint hamantaschen!)

For the dough, I used a recipe I found in one of my favorite Jewish cookbooks, Joan Nathan's The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. I made three fillings, one prune, one chocolate-almond and one with apricot jam, coconut and almonds (see below). But there is nothing to stop you from experimenting; it's what makes baking fun.



Hamantaschen Dough

Makes enough for 24 to 36 cookies*
(Adapted from Joan Nathan's The Jewish Holiday Kitchen)


Ingredients:

2/3 cup unsalted butter (or pareve shortening), softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest (optional)
1 large egg (optional)


Directions:

1. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl, using either a food processor or mixer.**

2. Add the egg, vanilla and zest, if using. Continue mixing until the batter is smooth. 

3. Sift flour and baking powder into a small bowl, beginning with the smaller amount of flour. Save the remaining half cup to add to sprinkle on the dough if needed when you roll it out later.

4. Add the flour to the butter mixture, pulsing or mixing until a ball of dough is formed. Try to avoid over-mixing as it will create a tough dough.

5. Split the dough into three or four balls, covering each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or overnight.

6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment or grease it lightly with butter or a spritz of oil.

Rolling out dough using plastic wrap

7. Take a packet of dough and roll out to the thickness of about 1/8 inch (you just have to guess at this!) on a lightly floured board or between two sheets of plastic wrap (my preferred method). Cut into 2 1/2- to 3-inch circles (I used a floured glass that was just shy of 3 inches in diameter).***

Using a glass to make circles


A teaspoon of filling in the center

Turning a circle into a triangle

Ready for the oven!

8. 
Fill with about 1 teaspoon of filling (better too little than too much!). Then, using your two forefingers, push the top two thirds of the cookie toward the center. Fold up the bottom third upward with your two thumbs, and press lightly together, leaving some of the filling showing in the center. Lightly pinch the three seams together.

9. If you wish (I did), lightly brush the cookies with a beaten egg before putting them in the oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned. Prepare remaining hamantaschen while the others are baking. 

Notes:

*The number of cookies is dependent on how thick you roll the dough and how large you make the cookies. I used a water glass measuring almost 3 inches to cut out the circles.

**I found the food processor worked beautifully for making the dough. I pulsed the butter a few times before adding the sugar, egg and vanilla and mixing until smooth. I then added the flour and pulsed a few times until well combined. A hand or stand mixer would also work.

***If you don't have a cookie or biscuit cutter, a floured water glass works fine, although sometimes you have to use a knife to coax the circle of dough out of the glass.



Prune Filling

Ingredients:

1 cup finely chopped pitted prunes 
1/4 raisins, soaked in 1/4 cup juice, sweet wine or water
1 cup water (or more if needed)
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup chopped walnuts


Directions:

1. Put chopped prunes into small saucepan with water and soaked raisins, including juice.

2. Boil, then simmer until soft, checking frequently to make sure the liquid hasn't boiled away. Before it does, be sure to add more water. The smell of burnt prunes is not very appetizing!

3. Add the lemon juice, zest and honey. Stir well. 

4. Mash with a potato masher or use an immersion blender if you want a smoother consistency. (I didn't, and the cookies tasted just fine.) Stir in chopped walnuts.


Suggestions for other fillings

I made two, but, as I didn't measure carefully, I will just include the basic ingredients, leaving it up to you to experiment. The Internet, of course, is always a great resource!

Chocolate Almond Filling

 I took a shortcut and used Love 'n Bake's Chocolate Schmear filling, mixing equal parts with almond butter, adding a tablespoon or two of milk (you can use almond milk if you prefer) to thin the mixture a little, plus another couple of tablespoons of chopped roasted almonds. I added one drop of almond extract. The mixture should be thick but pliable. 


Other ideas:

I mixed apricot jam with toasted coconut and chopped walnuts. Any jam mixed with your choice of nuts and/or coconut would work. If the mixture is too thick, add a little water. If it's too sweet, add some lemon juice. Nutella, the flavor du jour, would also make a delectable filling for hamantaschen. As for turning these pastries savory, I may be too much of a traditionalist for that, but there's one I saw filled with brisket that looks intriguing...

Happy baking!















Monday, February 9, 2015

DIY Granola: It's Easy!




Granola's hot! And you don't have to break the bank to buy it and worry that it's filled with everything you're trying to avoid--like too much fat, sugar, salt and gluten. The solution? Make it yourself. It's really easy. But first a little history. I find it fascinating, but if you don't, skip to the recipe at the end!

Once maligned as sixties hippy food for "crunchy" liberal types, granola, according to FoodReference.com, traces its lineage back to one health-conscious doctor/nutritionist/would-be Presbyterian minister called Sylvester Graham, an early 19th century evangelist for vegetarianism and inventor of the graham cracker.
Later that century, another health-conscious doctor used graham flour to create twice-baked "health" food he called "granula," which John Harvey Kellogg of Corn Flakes fame, a Seventh Day Adventist who ran a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich., turned into a baked, ground whole grain product renamed "granola."

Fast forward to the 1960s when granola as we know it came to be. Some link that resurgence to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Festival, which drew 400,000 people to a farm in upstate New York--and where massive amounts of granola were served. Out of this watershed rock 'n' roll moment emerged a recipe for Sunshine Happy Hippy Granola, which isn't all that much different than the recipe below.

Okay. Enough time travel. Back to 2015. Granola seems to have shed its hippy image and simply become hip--and expensive. I've seen prices ranging from $3.99 a pound for bulk granola to $12.99 a pound for a "gourmet" version.


At the top of the price pyramid are gluten-free, non-GMO, organic and/or locally sourced varieties with a range of fancy-sounding names that sound like cookies, cakes or hot drinks and display a knack for creative marketing and packaging ideas. But you can easily make something similar--maybe even better--for less money with less sugar and more of the ingredients that appeal to you and none of the ones that don't. I can't promise that this granola is low in calories--it's not, so watch your portions. And it does include some sweeteners and oil (and you can experiment with adding even less). But it's full of healthy protein, fiber, omega-3, cholesterol-fighting oats and a variety of vitamins and minerals.

My recipe is basically a blank canvas that you can paint to suit your own tastes. Use one kind of nut or several--or none. Use any seeds you prefer--or none. Use agave instead of honey and maple syrup, coconut oil in place of olive. Leave out some oil or the egg white and stir in a tablespoon of pureed pumpkin or peanut butter instead. It's gluten-free if you use the right kind of oats and vegan if you omit the egg white.

After the granola is baked to a golden crisp, I add about a cup of dried fruit and other mix-ins. The range of choices is broad. I usually add currants or raisins, mini chocolate chips and sour cherries or cranberries. Sometimes I mix in dried blueberries or Trader Joe's Golden Berry Blend. But you can go tropical with candied pineapple or dried mango--or try candied ginger and banana chips. The possibilities are infinite--or you can just leave out the fruit and chips and cut some of the calories.

Granola Breakfast Cookies, inspired by a recipe from The Two Bite Club,
using homemade granola in place of store-bought.

Recipes from two food blogs, Food52 and Bon Appetit, served as my inspiration. I wanted to reduce the fat and sugar while retaining the fresh, crunchy sweetness that makes granola so appealing when mixed with milk or yogurt, sprinkled over ice cream or an apple crisp, or used as a muffin topper or a cookie or energy bar ingredient. The  recipe calls for one egg white, though I have used two when the oats and nuts seemed in need of more liquid. I usually mix the egg white in with the other liquid ingredients. This allows me to use less oil. In theory, it also helps the mixture to "clump" a little more than usual when it bakes in the oven, attaining the clusters so prized by granola lovers. Unfortunately, this hasn't worked for me, probably because I stir the granola every 10 minutes or so to attain even browning. Another method I read about for "clumpifying" is to stir in the beaten egg white right before putting the mixture in the oven, then refraining from stirring. I'm afraid this would lead to burnt granola in my oven. However, every oven is different, so do experiment. After all, that's the fun of making granola--and cooking in general!

Fresh batch of granola--not much clumping, but lots of crunch!


Honey Maple Granola

(Makes 7-8 cups)


Ingredients:

3 cups rolled oats*
1 1/2 cups nuts (I used 1/2 each of walnuts, pecans and sliced almonds)
1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds 
2 tablespoons chia or hemp seeds--or a combination (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil (or canola or liquid coconut oil)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 egg white (large egg)
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon*
3/4 cup-1 cup dried fruit (optional)
1/4 cup-1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)

*Use certified gluten-free oats if you're gluten-sensitive. (Trader Joe's and Bob's Red Mill are two brands I like.)
**Feel free to substitute or add other spices, such as ginger, nutmeg or cardamom, depending on your taste and mix-ins.


Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Grease or spread parchment on a rimmed cookie sheet (12-by-17-inch pan works well).

2. Mix oats, nuts, coconut and seeds together in a large bowl.

3. In a small bowl, stir together oil, maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, egg white and vanilla. Add to the oats mixture and stir until the liquid is well mixed in.

4. Stir in salt and cinnamon or other spices.

5. Spread the granola evenly in the pan, patting it down with a rubber spatula to make sure the thickness is fairly uniform. If you prefer, you can divide the mixture between two cookie sheets, making a thinner layer of granola. If you do it this way, you will need to check it more often in the oven, as it will bake more quickly and could easily burn.

6. Check the granola every 10 or 15 minutes, turning it carefully with a metal spatula to make sure that it's browning evenly. Flip the pan back to front halfway through. When it's done, in about 50 minutes to an hour, it will be golden brown.

7. Cool for a few minutes in the pan on a wire rack. Then add dried fruit and/or chips. Granola keeps in an airtight container for about two weeks or in the freezer for up to three months. If you freeze it, leave out the dried fruit and add it later.