I’ve had a box of cereal bars in my cupboard for over six months. It was a box of six when I bought it; six months on, five remain. The other day I looked at the sell-by date and had to throw them out, as they’d expired two months ago. Why had I purchased a box of cereal bars and only eaten one? The answer lies not, as you may think, in simple forgetfulness, or a discovered dislike for the variety I had purchased.
I just really, really hate shop-bought cereal bars. I’m not trying to come across all holier-than-thou, but the ingredient labels on those things make me shudder. Wholegrain oat flakes? Fine. Fruit pieces? I can deal with that, although I’m not hugely thrilled that the fruit has its own separate ingredients list, including ‘sugar’ and ‘grape juice concentrate’. Why are the dried blueberries ‘infused with cranberries’, like some kind of bizarre fruity Russian doll? Honey? Yes, that’s fine. Chopped almonds? Good. But why are there also ‘citrus fibre’, ‘glucose syrup’, ‘palm oil’ and ‘natural flavouring’ in my cereal bar?
And this was one of the better brands of cereal bar, one that markets itself as being wholesome and natural, and has the price tag to show it. It could be worse, I suppose, but I really don’t like the fact that something as small and innocuous as a cereal bar contains over thirty different ingredients, many of them sugar in various forms. I also don’t like that it has a pretty long shelf life – around three to five months. I really don’t want to eat something that’s five months away from freshness, unless it’s supposed to be, i.e. comes in a can or in dried form.
So that’s why the box of cereal bars sat unloved and neglected in my cupboard. I took one to work, in case I was ever in need of an emergency blood sugar boost, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. No matter how hungry I was, I would either go home and make myself a snack, or get a banana from the corner shop. I just don’t consider pre-wrapped cereal bars food, and in my mind they have no nutritional value. This is probably a bit unfair, but something that sits in a wrapper for months surely can’t be doing your body much good.
The worst are those that market themselves as healthy but are absolutely loaded with additives, sugar and sometimes even chocolate. Sticking a few oats in something is not a guarantee of healthfulness, especially if this is counterbalanced by lashings of artificial sweeteners. It makes me irritated that some people are misled into buying these concoctions, thinking they’re one of the healthiest snack options out there. OK, so they’re better than a Mars bar, but not by much, and certainly not better than something like a piece of fruit or some nuts.
But sometimes, I admit, you do just want an ‘instant’ snack. Something that is portable. Something that won’t make a mess – no matter how carefully I eat apples, I always seem to end up with sticky apple juice on my hands. Something that doesn’t have a pesky skin to discard, or requires some form of chopping preparation. Something you can put in your bag in case hunger strikes, or wolf down on your way to those places you have to be. This is where the cereal bar comes into its own, and probably the main reason for its popularity.
So, in the spirit of handy instant snacks – which I’ve found myself in desperate need of lately, as winter sets in and the gap between lunch and dinner becomes increasingly unbearable – I decided to scrap the additives and make my own cereal bars. This decision was also inspired by seeing a wonderful recipe over on one of my favourite food blogs, the Little Loaf. Kate had, like me, recently returned from Bali craving sunshine and tropical flavours, which you will find in abundance in these bars.
The method couldn’t be easier – I know ‘making your own cereal bars’ might sound a bit of a faff – and basically involves stirring a few things together in a bowl before baking for half an hour. They’re rather like a healthier and more interesting version of a classic flapjack. You could use this recipe as a blueprint, customizing it to suit your own fruit and nut tastes. I used Kate’s dried mango and flaked coconut combination, but added some ground ginger because it works well with both mango and coconut, and sunflower seeds for crunch and because they’re good for you.
Binding together the healthy mix of oats, seeds and dried fruit is melted coconut oil, which is super trendy at the moment because of its reported health benefits, and a mixture of honey and coconut syrup. The latter I found in Bali, in this wonderful thick dark glass bottle that looks like those bottles of suntanning oil you can get – you’d be forgiven for getting the two mixed up! Inside is this incredibly dark, rich, molasses-like syrup with a heady aroma of toasted coconut. It’s incredible stuff, and perfect for lending a deep, butterscotch richness to the cereal bars.
These taste like the best flapjack you’ve ever eaten. They have the amazing toasty, buttery warmth of baked oats, combined with the tang of dried mango and the toffee nuttiness of coconut. They are crumbly yet gooey, crispy yet chewy. They are golden and gorgeous and just what you need in that sad time between lunch and dinner.
Baking these will fill your kitchen with the smell of flapjacks, yet you can feel good in the knowledge that they’re substantially healthier. Yes, they do of course have some fat and sugar in them, but coconut oil is a healthy fat, and all the sugar is natural (and comparatively less than you’d find in shop-bought bars). Better still, you know exactly what went into your cereal bars – no weird syrups, no additives, no ‘citrus fibre’ or palm oil. This does mean that they certainly won’t have a five-month shelf life, but they’re so good I’d be surprised if they last even five days in your kitchen. I suspect I am very unlikely to ever find these languishing neglected in my cupboard.
50g coconut oil
60g runny honey
2 tbsp coconut syrup or maple syrup
25g sunflower seeds
100g rolled oats
50g jumbo oats
40g flaked coconut
60g dried mango, chopped
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground ginger
Pre-heat the oven to 175C. In a large mixing bowl, melt the coconut oil in the microwave. Whisk in the honey and syrup. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Grease and line a 20cm square cake tin, then pour in the mixture and press down with the back of a spoon. Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown, then leave to cool before slicing into eight pieces with a sharp knife.