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Crunchy granola concoction puts boxed cereals to shame

Thursday, July 12, 2001

By Rebecca Sodergren, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

I have finally found it. For years, I struggled to find something I could enjoy eating for breakfast, and at last, I've hit upon the right thing.

Not bacon and eggs, not French toast, not pancakes. Too fattening for daily consumption, and too much of a hassle to prepare. Even if I leave myself enough time to cook them (rare on a workday morning), I never leave enough cleanup time -- and who wants to come home from work to a sinkful of greasy dishes?

Not fruit and toast, either. That's a good combination sometimes, but because my sack lunch is often fruit and bread (and cookies), lunchtime starts feeling like reruns.

What I need is something healthful that I can grab and then leave only one dirty dish in the sink.

My perfect solution? Breakfast cereal -- but not the stuff from a box.

I'll eat boxed cereal occasionally, but I can walk the entire supermarket cereal aisle and find no variety that I really want to buy. Many get soggy in milk, which I hate, and if they don't, they're probably coated with sugar. I also can't stand the prices. Growing up with a farmer father, I heard the morning-by-morning grumble, "There's about a nickel's worth of corn in this box of Corn Flakes." (He hadn't had his coffee yet.)

But Dad raised a good point. What you're really paying for when you buy a box of cereal is multicolored cardboard boxes, little bottom-of-the-box toys and television commercials on the Saturday morning cartoons. "They're grrrr-eat?"

My cereal, a granola-like concoction, is better -- it's homemade.

I came up with the idea after my mother-in-law gave me a great little cookbook -- the "More-with-Less Cookbook" by Doris Janzen Longacre. It's a Mennonite cookbook that stresses low-cost, healthful, environmentally responsible foods. It has a whole chapter on cereals. I tried the first cereal recipe -- and never got any further.

You might be tempted to quit reading by now -- making your own cereal sounds like a chore. It's not. Sure, it takes more effort than pulling a box off the grocery store shelf, but not much more, and it's worth it. Here's why:

Nutrition. My cereal recipe contains many healthful ingredients -- oats, wheat germ, sunflower seeds -- but no artificial preservatives. And unlike grocery-store granola, which often has so much sugar that it turns the milk syrupy, homemade granola has only as much sweetener as the maker chooses to use.

I use so little sweetener that some people accuse my granola of tasting like horse feed. But vanilla extract and lots of spices (cinnamon, nutmeg) fake me into thinking the cereal is sweeter than it is. And when I can add as many raisins as I want, who needs lots of sugar? Which leads me to my next point ...

Individual preference. When something had dark raisins in it, my grandmother used to pick them out and give them to my grandfather, telling her children, "It's just because he likes them so much." Everybody knew the truth -- she's always hated dark raisins! So if she were making this cereal, she could skip the raisins. I happen to love them -- the more, the better.

What do you like? Craisins? Dried apricots? Dried banana chips? Peanuts, pecans, almonds, cashews? Use what you like.

This could work especially well for children -- feed them granola with almost no sugar but entice them with the mix-ins they like. In fact, you could prepare a batch of plain granola and then do individual mix-ins -- raisins for the child who likes them, but no walnuts for the kids who will turn up their noses.

Of course, the mix-ins are the most expensive part of the cereal, so if you go overboard, you could defeat part of the purpose of making your own cereal -- watching your wallet. According to my calculations, you'd have to go overboard with mix-ins to raise the price to the level of boxed cereals.

Price. Did you see the granola pictured with this story? I wanted it to be pretty for the picture, so I used whole almonds and big chunks of dried apricots -- and they're not cheap.

However, my 10 1/2-cup batch of granola cost about $4.93 -- that's about 47 cents per cup of cereal. Breadshop's Granola, a comparable natural-ingredients variety with raisins and almonds, cost $3.59 at the grocery store for a box containing 4 cups of cereal -- about 90 cents per cup. My cereal, then, ran at a little over half the cost of the store-bought cereal.

You can save money on some ingredients by buying them in bulk. For instance, we bought our sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, almonds and wheat germ at East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze, where you scoop ingredients out of bulk bins.

Ease of preparation. Believe it or not, making your own granola does not require a slave-over-the-stove commitment. It takes only 5 to 10 minutes to measure and stir the ingredients in a big bowl. The larger challenge for the baseball-and-band family will be to find a time when you're home for at least an hour. You stir together the ingredients, spread them on a couple of greased baking sheets, then go and do something else while it bakes for 30 to 60 minutes. Just remember to pop the oven door open and stir occasionally.

After it cools, just put it in an airtight container. We've munched on a batch for as long as 2 1/2 weeks without noticing any loss in flavor or crunch.

Multiple uses. Who says this is just breakfast food? Put a baggie full in your child's lunch bag in place of chips. Top yogurt or ice cream with it. Take it along on camping trips to double as breakfast and trail mix. Pack it in your regulation 9-inch-by-9-inch cooler to take into PNC Park.

Or put out a bowlful as a healthful snack. We did that with the granola that's pictured with this story. In this office, where cake and cookies seem to appear daily, even healthful granola disappeared in no time.

Basic dry cereal formula

7 cups dry ingredients, including:
At least 2 to 3 cups rolled oats
Plus other grains and nuts as desired:
Wheat germ
Whole wheat flour
Wheat bran
Wheat grits
Soy flour, grits or roasted beans
Grape Nuts
Uncooked cereals (Ralston, Wheatena, for example)
Sunflower seeds
Sesame seeds
Pumpkin seeds, roasted
Fresh grated or dried coconut
Dry milk solids
Chopped nuts
Spices cinnamon, nutmeg, other spices to taste
1 cup liquids, including as desired:
Brown sugar (see note)
Melted margarine
Peanut butter
Milk or cream

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl:

Combine liquid ingredients separately and pour over dry ingredients.

Spread in large greased baking pans and bake for 30 to 60 minutes, stirring often. Do not overbrown. Crunchiness depends on proportions and baking time. For a chunkier cereal, allow to cool undisturbed, then break into pieces. When cool, as desired add:

Chopped dates
Dried apples
Other fruits

Note: If using brown sugar, the recipe recommends using 2 tablespoons water added to 1/2 cup sugar, but we use less sugar -- typically just 2 tablespoons of sugar per batch of cereal.

"More-with-Less Cookbook" by Doris Janzen Longacre

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