I’m trying to use up all the grains, nuts and seeds, and dried fruit in my pantry before I leave Montreal. Faced with a huge jar of rolled oats, I discovered this recipe on 101cookbooks for Big Sur Power Bars. I’ve always wanted to try to make granola bars / power bars of some sort, so despite the fact that I didn’t have all the ingredients, I decided to give it a try. Below is the recipe I made from what I found in my kitchen, based on Heidi Swanson’s recipe, and my memories of making hundreds of batches of granola back in my days as fast food chef at the House of Commons co-op.
Edit: The original attempt and comments are at the end of the post. This is my current recipe:
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 Tbs. ground espresso beans
- 1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt (use less if your soy nuts are salted)
- 1 cup pecan halves, broken into large pieces
- 1 cup almonds (with peels is best)
- 2/3 cup (unsweetened) shredded coconut
- 1 1/2 cups rolled oats
- 1 cup wheat bran
- 1/2 Tbs. oil or butter to grease the pan
- 1/2 cup soy nuts (salted is fine)
- 1/4 cup puffed amaranth
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1.5 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Measure the sugar and salt and espresso beans into a 1- to 2-quart saucepan.
On a large, rimmed baking sheet place the pecans, almonds, coconut, oats, and wheat bran. Distribute evenly over the baking sheet so that there are no holes or sparsely occupied areas. Bake the sheet for about 15 minutes, or until the coconut is deeply golden. Watch carefully, checking every five minutes and tossing if necessary to keep the edges from burning. When everything is toasted, pour the ingredients into a large bowl.
While the nuts and grains are toasting, add 1/2 Tbs. canola oil to the 1/4 cup measuring cup, and tip it around until the measuring cup is well greased. Use this oil to grease a 9- by 9-inch baking pan. Then use the oiled measuring cup to measure out the honey and maple syrup. Turn the heat to medium, stirring constantly as it comes to a boil and thickens just a bit, about 4 minutes. Let cool briefly, add the vanilla, then pour the syrup over the oat mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until it is evenly incorporated.
Spread into the prepared pan and use a fork to press down and flatten any high spots. Cool to room temperature. Turn sheet out onto a cutting board, and cut the sheet into quarters. Cut each quarter into 3 to 6 bars, depending on how big you want them.
Makes 12 – 24 bars.
Macronutrient breakdown: 47% fat, 42% carbs, 11% protein
Serving Size: 1/20th recipe
|Amount Per Serving|
Although I haven’t followed it exactly, I’m guessing that the original Big Sur Power Bars recipe is a pretty solid recipe. However, one thing that bothers me about this recipe, and Swanson’s recipes in general, is that she doesn’t really explain much about how the recipe was created, and what purpose different ingredients serve. So I’m going to do my best to give a more thorough exegesis below. My granola chemistry knowledge is rather limited, however. If anyone can point me to a Cook’s Illustrated style granola recipe, I’d really appreciate it.
Oats are the heart of granola, and need no explanation. Even though it’s not called for in the original recipe, I like to toast the oats a bit, to enhance their flavor and crispness. I never have any rice crispies around, so I sub in some combination of extra oats, wheat bran, wheat germ, puffed amaranth, and soy nuts. I always used to add wheat bran and grated coconut to granola, as the little string bits create a great flaky texture. The coconut adds something subtle to the base flavor as well, and the wheat bran adds fiber and protein. I add the soy nuts because they add a little extra protein to balance out all the sugars and fats, and a whiff of dark roasted flavor. They can certainly be substituted if you don’t have any on hand. The fluffy little puffed amaranth balls add some visual contrast, and volume, but any puffed cereal or even more oats or bran could be used instead. Sometimes I want to try adding more than a 1/4 cup of amaranth and cutting back on the oats a bit.
The nuts and fats:
In my co-op days I experimented with every possible nut and seed in granola. After many, many gallons of granola I determined that pecan granola was always the first to get eaten, followed by almond. Walnuts and cashew granola were less popular, and peanut granola was always the last to go. So the fact that Swanson calls for pecans and almonds in her recipe is a good sign. In the bars, neither the pecans nor almonds dominate the flavor, but they create a nutty, satisfying flavor with a lot of depth. Almonds are one of the highest protein nuts, but pecans are one of the lowest. If you want a higher protein granola bar, instead of pecans try pumpkin seeds, pistachios, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, or hazelnuts.
I was surprised that this recipe doesn’t call for added fat, as most granola recipes have you add oil with the sweeteners. I suspect that the oil is added so that the granola crisps up when you bake it. Since these bars aren’t baked, I suppose the oil isn’t needed.
Swanson doesn’t say why she calls for cane sugar in addition to the liquid sweetener, but I suspect it’s because the cane sugar firms up into a harder substance than the liquid sweeteners. I don’t usually have brown rice syrup around, as I’m somewhat adverse to the slightly malty flavor it adds. So I use honey and maple syrup instead. I really liked the combo of honey and maple syrup. Even though I used a mild honey, I could definitely taste it in the bars. The maple syrup went perfectly with the toasted pecans and almonds. With 3/4 of a cup of honey and maple syrup, the bars end up very sweet. Using 1/2 cup yields a still sweet but not cloying granola bar. I’ve tried with only 3 Tbs. of each sweetener, and that works as well. The bars still hold together, and have a touch of sweetness to them, but they are more dry and crumbly (too dry for Derek in fact).
I use the ground espresso beans Derek uses for his stovetop espresso maker. One Tablespoon is definitely noticeable, but not dominant. If you want a stronger coffee flavor you could try 2 Tbs. I’ve also tried adding raw cacao beans instead of coffee. They didn’t add a lot of flavor, but every once in a while I’d get a bite with a bit more alcohol aroma than I was expecting, which I attributed to the cacao beans.
I increased the amount of vanilla a tad compared to the original recipe, and added the vanilla after heating the liquid, since I thought heating the vanilla would diminish its flavor (anyone know if this is true?). The vanilla flavor is prominent in the bars. Overall, I’d say that the flavor is excellent. The toasted nuts and coconut created an earthy, satisfying, almost savory base, the honey provides sweetness and a strong floral note, and the heady aroma of vanilla bridged the sweet highs and nutty lows perfectly. The flavor actually reminds me a bit of baklava, since the honey is so dominant. It would be fun to try to make baklava bars, with walnuts as the nuts, and lots of cinnamon instead of cocoa or coffee.
Once cooled, it’s easy to turn the whole pan out onto the counter, in a single piece. The bars fall apart a bit when cut, and sometimes crumble when eaten out of hand, but they stay together reasonably well. They’re not rock hard, nor super soft.
Cranberry Power Bars (April 10, 2011 update)
Today I tried to make the cherry power bars from chow.com, but I didn’t have dried cherries so I used cranberries instead. Rather than rolled oats I used a mix of five rolled grains + sunflower seeds. I didn’t have sliced almonds so I used whole almonds that I chopped up. I didn’t toast the flax meal in the oven because I wasn’t sure whether that would be good for the omega 3’s. Other than that I followed the recipe. The weighed amounts: 246 5-grain cereal, 72g almonds, 50g walnuts, 17oz wheat germ, and 86g cranberries.
The bars turned out really well. They crumble a bit at the edges but mostly hold together well. And the flavor is excellent, with just the right amount of vanilla, salt, cinnamon, and nuts, to give a great depth of flavor. Derek loved them, rating them A-.
For 1/16 of the recipe:
Original attempt from June 15, 2008
1 Tbs. oil or butter to grease the pan
1 cup pecan
2/3 cup (unsweetened) shredded coconut
1 cup almonds
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup soy nuts
1/2 cup wheat bran
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 Tbs. canola oil
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 tablespoons chopped raw cacao beans
1.5 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
With my original attempt, I let my bars cool on the counter, but even after six hours they hadn’t crisped up. When I tried to pick up a bar they crumbled into several pieces in my hand. I’m not sure if rice syrup hardens more than maple syrup and honey, or if I did something else wrong. Maybe I should have put them in the fridge overnight. Instead I decided to put the whole pan in the oven briefly at 300 to try to crisp them all. I didn’t time it, but left them in until the top started to brown a bit. Indeed, this brief stint in the oven crisped the bars up. They were so crispy, in fact, that there was absolutely no cutting into them, or any conceivable way to get them out of the pan. Maybe putting them uncut into the oven was a bad idea. Maybe I should have cut them into bars and placed them on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. The deed was done however, and there was no way I was going to throw out a whole pan (minus one) of yummy granola bars. So I poured milk into the pan and turned my granola bars back into granola. It took a while for the bars to soften up enough to eat, but once they did, it was some tasty granola. It would be an interesting dessert actually. Cook individual granola bars in ramekins, til they’re rock hard. Then fill the ramekins with warm milk, and chat up your guests while they wait for their dessert to slowly become edible.
Update August 10, 2008: I made these granola bars a second time, using walnuts instead of pecans. I didn’t have wheat bran so I used 2/3 cup wheat germ, and added an extra 1/3 cup of oats. I didn’t have soy nuts either. I only used 1/4 cup honey this time, and used 1 ounce (about 2.5 Tbs.) of Sharffenberger cacao nibs instead of the beans). I didn’t put them in the oven this time, but greased the pan well. They came out of the pan easily and stayed together when I cut them with a sharp knife.
They were tasty. Still sweet but not too sweet. I’d actually be tempted to cut down the sweetener a bit more, but I’m afraid there wouldn’t be enough goo to hold the bars together. I couldn’t really taste the cacoa nibs, so next time I might leave them out and try the espresso powder that Heidi suggests. Also, to counteract all the sugar, I’d like to add something with lots of antioxidants. I suppose I could try goji berries or dried blueberries or cranberries, or maybe some dried spices like nutmeg or cinnamon, or even tea? Any other suggestions?
Derek’s comment: “These are the best granola bars I’ve ever had.”
I did calculate the nutritional stats for this version. The ingredients are all pretty healthy (except for all the sugar), but the calories seem a bit high, unless you’re taking them hiking like Heidi. When I’m just using them as a mid-afternoon snack I’d prefer that they were under 200 calories. I think I could do this by nixing the nibs, using less oil to grease the pan, and by using all wheat bran instead of wheat germ. If you use this version, and make 16 bars, each bar contains: