Making granola is always a happy event in my kitchen, because it means I have time to potter around for 45 minutes whisking together delightful combinations of honey and spices and stirring huge oven trays laden with toasting, cinnamon-scented oats. It leaves the house smelling like a Scandinavian bakery for hours, and, best of all, enables me to stockpile a couple of big jars of glorious homemade granola to last me the next few weeks. Now that the festive season has arrived and I have handed in my PhD (just thought I’d casually drop that in - !!!), I thought I’d use a bit of newfound free time to experiment with a Christmassy version of this breakfast staple. It has the familiar nutty crunch of baked oats enveloped in honey, but with added seasonal twists.Read More
Mango and coconut is such an evocative combination. For me personally, it conjures up two delicious holiday memories. The first: setting foot outside a hotel in Saigon for my very first experience of Vietnam, walking fifty yards down a street pervaded by the kind of chaos you only get in south east Asian capitals to find a little stall down a side alley serving up the most magnificent smoothies. Forget smoothie, actually – this was a meal in a cup: ambrosial marigold mango pureed with glorious ice, thick coconut cream and scattered with the glistening pulp of a passion fruit. With my hair and clothes already sticking to my damp, humid skin, this was like nectar.Read More
It's strange how some foodstuffs are a totally normal, everyday part of the scenery in some countries, and then we come along, get our health-obsessed five-a-day superfood-crazy label-mad hands on them, slap on a massive price tag, and turn them into something chic, exclusive, expensive-because-healthy. When I was in Vietnam, there were smoothie bars perched on every street corner, churning out giant plastic cups of heady made-to-order mixtures; everything from fresh coconut to dragon fruit and durian fruit would be blended in front of your eyes into a sweet cupful of nourishing deliciousness. None of these ever cost more than around 80p. Come home, go to a smoothie bar (if you can find one, that is), and you'll pay at least £3 for the privilege of having some inferior fruit crushed into a cup.
The same goes for Japanese food. Nourishing noodle soups, slimming sushi and protein-rich tofu are staples of the Japanese diet, taken for granted, almost. Everyday food, they certainly don't cost nearly the amount they do over here, where you seem to pay for the privilege of ingesting something that isn't likely to give you a sumo wrestler physique overnight (and, of course, for the importing of certain ingredients).
The first time I tried goji berries was at a Chinese friend's house. She had made Chinese hot pot for me, and I had been avoiding the little red blobs floating around in the broth, thinking they might be some kind of super-spicy little dried chilli. Upon closer inspection, I realised they were goji berries, plump and swollen from their bath in the hot liquid. Later, she made me a cup of green tea, throwing in a handful of the berries for good measure. It was delicious, the berries imparting a sweet, slightly musky flavour to the tea.
I was amazed at the apparent careless abandon with which she put these berries into things. But then, I realized, I am used to the Western treatment of goji berries - a sort of awed and slightly confused reverence. As something bearing that elusive and exclusive 'superfood' label, goji berries are to be respected, to be treated with admiration, even if we are never likely to try them because they're often pretty expensive. In China, where the berries have been grown for hundreds of years (they're the biggest cultivators and exporters of goji berries in the world), they're probably a little more blasé about these little fruits, free from the ludicrous superfood-mania that has swept the UK in recent years.
Goji berries' superfood credentials stem from their large quantity of antioxidants and vitamin A. However, there's no real evidence to suggest they're any better for you than berries in general, which are also classed as 'superfoods'. Still, I find them a rather intriguing little fruit, with their beautiful dusky red colour and diminutive puckered appearance. You can get them in most health food shops and even some large supermarkets now, and, while they're not cheap, they're not much more expensive than your average dried berry.
Lucky enough to have a bag of goji berries in my cupboard, I decided to experiment with a new granola recipe. I figured that if more common dried berries - blueberries, cranberries, etc - work in granola, why not up the 'superfood' credentials by adding some goji berries too?
I've long been a fan of making my own granola, ever since my first attempt a year or so ago. There are several advantages to doing it yourself.
Firstly, commercial granola is astronomically high in fat and sugar. Not to bore you with my health-nerd neuroticism, but it is. If you're lucky enough not to need to worry about such things, then good for you, but it still can't hurt to cut back a bit on these ingredients. The reason shop-bought granola is so delicious and tastes like flapjacks is because it's drenched in oil and honey/sugar before baking. Tasty, but not the most nutritious breakfast. By making it yourself, you can drastically lower the amount of calorific rubbish that goes into it, while still having a delicious-tasting end product. The trick is to use apple puree and honey to coat the granola mix before baking. Yes, there's still sugar in the form of honey, but much, much less, and no fat - just apple.
I imagine a lot of you are wondering if it's less tasty for this reason. It is certainly less sweet and flapjack-esque, but I find that the dried fruit makes up for this, adding plenty of sweetness. The granola base mixture (oats, barley, etc) toasts wonderfully in its covering of apple puree and honey, turning deliciously golden, toasty and crunchy. It's the perfect base for the dried fruit and nuts, allowing them to really shine. I actually prefer it, now, to commercial granola, which just tastes overly sweet and buries the flavour of the fruit and nuts within.
Secondly, homemade granola is cheaper. You won't save yourself huge amounts of money, but you will save a bit. If you buy decent granola or muesli, you often spend around £3-4 for a 750g box. To get all the ingredients to make your own (depending on what you put in it) usually costs around £5, but it makes about 1.75 kg. Plus some of the ingredients you only need to buy once to make several batches - apple for the apple puree, honey, flaked almonds, and dried fruit like raisins.
Also, it really is wonderfully satisfying to make your own. I appreciate not everyone has the time, but this takes under an hour from start to finish, and there's barely any hands-on work involved - just mixing everything up, then stirring it from time to time in the oven so that it toasts evenly. The sweet, spicy, toasty smell of the grains cooking warms your kitchen and hovers around you for hours afterwards.
Thirdly, you can customise home-made granola however you like. I've never found a muesli or granola in the shops that quite fits my specifications - I love brazil nuts, chopped dates, and tropical fruit, but this combo has never been found to my knowledge on the supermarket shelves. Now that I make my own, I can put in my favourite things. Until now I have made two versions: one, a tropical granola with brazil nuts, flaked almonds, dried papaya and dried pineapple (sometimes adding banana chips or coconut flakes); two, a delicious cinnamony version with chopped apricots, chopped dates, raisins, flaked almonds and brazil nuts again. Both are utterly delicious, but it was time to experiment with a new version.
Enter this 'superfood' berry granola, featuring goji berries, other dried berries (I used a mixture of cherries, blueberries and cranberries), sunflower seeds and toasted pecan nuts. I've wanted to try pecans in granola for ages, because they're my favourite nuts after brazil nuts, and I can't get enough of their toasty, caramel flavour. Sunflower seeds add crunch and also healthy nutrients, while the granola base is enriched with cinnamon and a good dose of vanilla. After a spell of baking in the oven, the sweet, spiced granola is mixed with jewel-like dried berries.
I haven't added too many goji berries here, because they're quite an acquired taste. Instead, their pleasant, earthy flavour combines with the more assertive sweetness of dried cherries, cranberries and blueberries. The result is a joyous medley of colours, the bright and muted reds of the berries contrasting beautifully with the nut-brown blanket of toasted oats and pecans.
I actually wrote all of the above post, up until this point, having not yet tried the result of this granola experiment. I figured it would be good enough to share with you all, though. This morning I poured my first bowl (and took the photos). I made a mug of green tea. I chopped up some blood orange and put it into the bowl with some ginger- and brown sugar-stewed plums left over from dessert last night. The dark juice of the blood oranges mingled with the magenta syrup from the plums, soaking into the granola. The tea sent wisps of grassy, fragrant smoke into the air. The dried berries and pecans winked invitingly up at me from the bowl, a glorious mass of syrupy red.
Ignoring all the blood orange and plum madness going on (which just lifted breakfast to dizzying heights of incredible deliciousness), this granola was incredible. So much better than I had expected, even though I expected good things. I think the key lies in the sunflower seeds and the pecans - the seeds contribute an amazing nutty toastiness that underlies the whole thing, combining wonderfully with the sweet, caramel notes of the pecans and then the sugary berries. Heavily attached to my brazil nut and tropical fruit version, I hadn't expected this to be quite as good. Instead, I think it's a new favourite. It allows me to indulge my borderline indecent love of pecan nuts and dried cranberries. It looks gorgeous. I can claim it's vaguely healthy, both because of its lack of oil and refined sugar and because it has some goji berries in (tenuous yes, but every little helps). As well as sunflower seeds and pecans, which are full of nutritious good fats.
I promise, this will surprise you. Both because it's incredibly easy, and because it's so much better than granola from the shops. The combination of ingredients just makes for the best ever breakfast bowlful. Even better if you add some segmented orange and stewed plums, although I think serving it with some fresh berries would also be a great idea, or some sliced banana (or both).
You may, like me, be sceptical of the superfood label. But this granola is both super and food, so I think it deserves the accolade. Get your hands on those crazy goji berries and get this granola in your life.
'Superfood' berry granola (makes around 10-12 servings):
(I'd like to add that the serving estimate here is strictly that - an estimate. I eat a lot of granola in a single portion, and this is so good that you might want to rethink your normal cereal serving size...)
- 320g apple puree*
- 110g runny honey
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- Seeds of 1 vanilla pod, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1kg muesli base mix
- 200g pecan nuts, roughly chopped
- 90g sunflower seeds
- 50g goji berries
- 150g mixed dried berries (e.g. blueberries, cranberries and cherries - or just one type)
Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
In a large bowl, whisk together the apple puree, honey, salt, cinnamon and vanilla. Add the muesli base and stir well to combine. Spread this mixture out evenly between two large baking sheets.
Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the trays from the oven give the mixture a good stir around. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes, then stir again. Finally, bake for another 10 minutes, then add the pecan nuts and sunflower seeds. Bake for 10 minutes more, then remove from the oven and leave to cool.
When cool, stir in the berries. Store the granola in an airtight jar or box.
* To make apple puree, simmer peeled, chopped cooking apples in a lidded pan with a splash of water until they turn to mush, then roughly crush with a potato masher or fork. It's worth making a big batch of this then freezing it in individual 320g portions, so you can easily make a batch of granola whenever the whim takes you!
1. Jordan's Super Fruity Granola. To mark their 40th anniversary of making granola, Jordan's commissioned a 'Perfect Breakfast' survey to find out what us Brits consider our ideal morning. Nearly half of the 2000 people surveyed considered a bowl of healthy cereal their perfect breakfast, and needed an hour and five minutes between waking up and leaving for work to be fully relaxed. Favourite breakfast pastimes include reading the paper and watching the news, but it also gets more specific - being made a cup of tea by someone else and not having to wear a coat outside are also ingredients for the ideal weekday morning, while guaranteed threats to such a morning include a bad night's sleep, running out of milk, or stubbing one's toe. I can agree with pretty much all of these, except I like to make my own cup of tea - I'm fussy like that.
Apparently only a tragic 30% of us would refuse to leave the house without a healthy breakfast. That means 70% of the people out there are running around without having sat down to a proper breaking of their fast. I physically cannot comprehend such a notion. If I don't eat breakfast, I'm a danger to myself and others. Perhaps to combat this sad statistic, Jordan's have released two new tempting varieties of their granola: Super Fruity and Super 3 Seeds. I was kindly sent a sample of the former to try, which features sweet, toasty oats baked in honey and offset by a tongue-tingling mixture of pomegranate, raspberry and redcurrant pieces. I enjoyed it enormously - granola can often be too sweet, but this has just the right balance of sweet crunchiness and acidity from the fruits. They are really quite tangy, but the whole thing works together perfectly and will definitely provide the much-needed morning wake up call for the average Brit, who apparently snoozes for around 8 minutes after the alarm goes off before rising.
2. South African apples and pears. This lovely hamper arrived from the people over at South African Fruit the other day, so I've been feasting on delicious crisp Gala apples and Forelle pears, which I particularly like because I think you pronounce it as 'For Elly', therefore clearly this type of pear is destined to be eaten by me. It's nice to have some decent apples and pears to fill the gap before the English ones start to come into season in the early autumn. The Forelles have a beautiful blushing skin and sweet flesh. I quite like them in savoury dishes - they go very well thinly sliced and tossed with wafer-thin fennel, chopped mint, pomegranate seeds and a mustard vinaigrette to make a crunchy and zesty summer salad that works with all kinds of meat and fish. The apples I just ate pure and unadulterated - I sometimes find the Gala variety a bit bland, but these were really crunchy and juicy.
4. Recovering from kitchen disasters. A couple of days ago I decided to make a cake for my mum. Specifically, this amazing lemon drizzle cake that I've made a few times and is just utterly perfect in every way (there's a reason it's received 1041 five-star reviews on BBC Good Food...). It is incredibly moist and buttery, with a gorgeous crunchy lemon tang from the sugary topping. Normally I double the mixture and make two at once, but this time I just made a single quantity. As I poured it into my loaf tin I was a bit worried that the tin was basically full and there would be no room for the cake to rise, but I casually dismissed it in my mind and stuck it in the oven.
Twenty minutes later, I was horrified to see batter overflowing from the tin in a volcanic fashion, pooling and baking on the oven floor. There was no way the cake was going to bake properly in that way. So I hastily pulled it out of the oven and scooped about a third of the still-liquid batter out of the baking cake tin and put it into another loaf tin, thereby breaking the First Rule of Cake Baking: do not open the oven door while it's cooking.
Predictably, the main cake sank horribly the middle. We're talking a proper crater, something that might appear if a small asteroid had hit the cake. The second, improvised cake came out pretty flat, as there wasn't that much batter to fill the tin. It wouldn't have been great as a cake on its own, because it had gone slightly crunchier and more biscuity, lacking the moist centre that makes its bigger brother so special.
Rather than throw it away, which I couldn't bear, I improvised. I cut it into cubes, put it into dessert glasses, and sprinkled it with sherry. I threw a few handfuls of juicy raspberries on top, then smothered the lot in thick cream. A sort of raspberry lemon trifle, with emphasis on the 'sort of'. I've never actually made a real trifle; this is probably the closest I will ever get.
But apparently it tasted great. What's more, it looked beautiful too - much more beautiful than in its flat cake form. It just goes to show that not all kitchen disasters are disasters - some are simply the wonderful origin of a new, unintended, but nevertheless delicious dish.
5. Getting ready for my new kitchen. I'm moving house in October, to start my PhD at the University of York. I have a lovely little house awaiting me, five minutes from the gym (with heated outdoor pool!) and - more importantly - ten minutes from some fabulous Asian grocers. Finally, I will have a kitchen that is entirely my own. No more sharing with horrible dirty people who leave my pans full of oil for fifteen days or casually leave the freezer open overnight. No more asking my friends to sit on upturned bins around the table because there are only six proper chairs. No more coming upstairs in the morning to find the cleaner has thrown away my baking parchment. Thank the lord.
Naturally, this means a quick re-evaluation of all the kitchen items I possess, and a shopping spree for further essentials (such as a Le Creuset teapot). Recently acquisitions include a sexy red Gaggia coffee machine and a Magimix food processor, which I found on eBay and was a total bargain. My little Kenwood blender, which struggles even to turn bread into breadcrumbs, is no match for this beast, and I am looking forward to putting it through its paces and making some blended delights.
Like I said, I can't wait to have a kitchen all to myself. It's going to be wonderful.
Health food stores really are such depressing places. The musty smell of arid, desiccated fruits and nuts; the greying packets of various withering beans and seeds; the assortment of tragic soy products that with every bite remind you how much you crave a huge, bloody, juicy steak; the lingering odour of crushed hopes and disappointment as yet another jar of £18 coconut oil fails to transform you into Miranda Kerr overnight. And why is it that customers browsing in health food stores are such a poor advert for the stores themselves? I can't say I've ever entered a health food store, seen someone poring over a shelf of Manuka honey or powdered flaxseed and thought "woah, I'd better get me some of that if it means I can look like him/her". Generally, health food stores are seen as breeding grounds for the socked-and-sandalled, the hairy-legged, the old and mad. You can feel the vim, zest and gusto being slowly sucked out of your soul as soon as you cross the threshold of one, as if some kind of health Dementor had zoomed down upon you and sucked your joie de vivre out through your mouth, replacing it with a pint of cod liver oil or an omega-3 supplement.
If I were the CEO of Holland & Barrett or the like, I'd kick-start an elaborate and extremely lucrative marketing campaign. Taking my inspiration from Abercrombie & Fitch, I'd replace all the store assistants with lithe, muscular young things with glossy hair and perfect teeth. I'd then stick a couple more of these young things in every store, masquerading as browsing customers - rather like plain clothes policemen. Companies would pay me millions in advertising to have one of these blooming beauties purring over one of their products for the entire day, ensuring every customer that came through the door bought one in order to guarantee their own healthy dose of gorgeousness. There they'd stand, pouting prettily as if deep in thought, turning that jar of sugar-free fruit spread over so as to read the nutrition information, flicking their waist-length curtain of blonde hair to one side to get a better look at the number of carbs per gram, seductively caressing the curvaceous exterior of the jar. Sales would skyrocket, profits would double, and we'd all be a lot healthier for it, I'm sure.
I'm almost reluctant to post this groundbreaking idea on the internet without patenting it first.
It's a shame, really, because a lot of the stuff health food stores are selling is really very tasty when used in the right way. Yes, there are a lot of horrible oddities that I would rather cook my own cat than eat, but generally you can find weird and wonderful ingredients that, with the right know-how and probably more than a little butter, you can transform into something delicious.
They're always good for finding the more obscure dried fruits that small supermarkets are unlikely to have: cranberries, mango, pineapple, papaya. They're also a treasure trove of tasty seeds for making bread: linseed, pumpkin seed, poppy seed, sunflower seed. You can usually find store-cupboard staples like tahini paste and the super-trendy rapeseed oil, as well as slightly lesser-known pulses and grains that are always handy for more exotic recipes.
What you can also find are the ingredients for this granola, and that is reason enough to celebrate the humble (if slightly depressing and musty) health food store.
Those of you who know me or read this blog often will know that I am a huge fan of breakfast. Quite literally, huge. The size of my morning bowl of porridge or muesli never fails to draw comments from friends/boyfriend/family (imagine how many oats you'd need to feed a stable of horses. Add how much milk you'd need to feed a barn of baby cows. Heat up. Stir in half an orchard's worth of fruit, and serve in a vat). It's my favourite meal of the day, and one I always love to experiment with. Though generally I rotate between porridge, muesli, and homemade soda bread with homemade jam, or ricotta cheese.
One of my favourite cereals is Jordan's Crunchy Oats. I discovered this in the early days of my relationship with my boyfriend - after one 'let's-impress-the-new-girlfriend' breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, he clearly realised he had secured my affections and complacently reverted to cereal from the cupboard. Not just any cereal, though - my first mouthful of this I still remember quite clearly. "WOW! It tastes like flapjack!" I exclaimed in delight, before proceeding to demolish the rest of the bowl and - I imagine - help myself to three more, firmly establishing early on that I was not some girl to be fobbed off with a handful of muesli. Proper breakfasts only, please, or I will go elsewhere.
The problem, as you might suspect, with cereal that tastes like a flapjack is that it is loaded with fat and sugar, as I discovered one sad morning upon looking at the back of the bag (until then, said boyfriend had decanted the cereal into a plastic tupperware. I wish he had done this before I sneaked a peek at the bag. Not only had that tupperware preserved the cereal; it had preserved my innocence). Oh Jordan's, how could you let me down? I always assumed anything bearing your brand name was guaranteed to keep me slim. Maybe it is, if you stick to the recommended serving size. Unfortunately, there is no way I could eat Crunchy Oats in the quantity I would want every morning and not have thighs the size of Asia.
It's the same story for most granola. The whole point of granola is that it is sweet and crunchy. To facilitate this, you have to coat the oats in something that will toast, usually oil, and something sweet, usually pure sugar or - not really any better, calore-wise - honey. The end result is perhaps a little better for you than a chocolate bar, but not by much, especially as its so damn moreish that you'll eat far more than is healthy. 'Everything in moderation' is an impossible maxim to follow when it comes to granola (other things it fails to apply to are: chocolate buttons, chocolate fingers, satsumas, grated cheese, pringles, chocolate-covered raisins).
But do not despair, lovers of all things oaty, toasty and sweet - there is a solution.
Make your own.
By making your own granola, you know exactly how much fat and sugar goes into it. You can control this - there are clever ways to cut this down and end up with a much more healthy product. Even if you're not so bothered about the fat and sugar, making your own granola has another perk - you can make it just the way you like it, adding the nuts and fruit that you love without having to be dictated to by the arbitrary whims of Kelloggs or Jordan's. Hate raisins? Find the fact that all muesli inevitably contains raisins the bane of your grape-loving life? Don't put them in! Allergic to nuts? Fine, chuck in more fruit instead! Want your kitchen to smell like heaven as you toast a batch of sweet, nutty oats to crunchy perfection? Do it!
I tried to make my own granola a couple of years ago while at university, but it was a bit of a disaster. Namely, I burnt it. The result was barely edible, the almonds coated with sticky black carbon, the whole thing possessing a bitter aftertaste that even handfuls of raisins could not counteract.
This, however, is the stuff of breakfast joy. It's slightly sweet, delightfully crunchy, and has beautiful bursts of sweetness from the fruit and toasty nuttiness from the coconut and almonds. It's also much better for you than anything you'll buy in the shops, and infinitely cheaper too. I bought the muesli base mix, fruit, almonds and coconut from the health food shop for about £6, but it made the equivalent of over three bags of supermarket granola, which often command a hefty price tag of at least £3.50 each. Money and calories saved - hurrah.
The key is to use unsweetened apple compote to coat the oats for toasting, instead of any oil. The Americans are big on this - you'll see "unsweetened applesauce" used as a substitute for butter and oil in a lot of recipes. It's not easy to find over here (you definitely don't want to buy 'apple sauce', as you'll most likely end up with something more suited to roast pork that homemade granola), but it's easy enough to make your own - peel, core and chop some cooking apples, simmer in a little water until mushy, then whisk or blend to a puree. If you make a big batch you can freeze it in bags so all you have to do next time you want to make granola is get one out to defrost the night before.
Yes, there is added sugar, in the form of honey or maple syrup, but it's not drowning in the stuff. Other than that, it's just cinnamon, vanilla, a little salt, and all natural goodness from the nuts and fruit. There's a hint of sweetness, but not enough to make you feel guilty. There's no fat added, only the natural (good) fats from the nuts. Admittedly, dried papaya and pineapple contain a lot of sugar, but you can omit these or replace them with healthier dates, apple, prunes or apricots instead, just as you can skip the nuts if you're really worried about fat.
That's the beauty of homemade granola - you can put whatever you like into your base of crunchy oats. I call this 'tropical' because it features coconut, papaya and pineapple. The combination is a really delicious one, but I'm also keen to have a go at an 'orchard' variety featuring dried apples and prunes. Use the recipe below as your guide, but have fun experimenting with whatever fruit and nuts you like.
Breakfast just got infinitely better.
Have you ever made your own cereal or granola? What flavour combinations do you love most at breakfast?
Tropical granola (makes about 1.5kg)
- 1kg muesli base mix (available in health food shops or some large supermarkets)
- 320ml apple compote (cook chopped apples with a little water until turned to mush - any left over will freeze for another batch of granola)
- 120g runny honey or maple syrup
- 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
- 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 100g flaked almonds
- 50g desiccated coconut or 100g flaked coconut
- 125g mixed dried papaya and pineapple, or 65g of each
- 150g raisins
Pre-heat the oven to 170C/160C fan oven. In a large bowl, whisk together the apple compote, honey/syrup, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. Add the muesli mix and stir well, ensuring all the mix is evenly coated with the wet ingredients.
Spread the mixture out evenly on two large baking sheets and put in the oven for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to make sure it toasts evenly. After 30 minutes, add the almonds and coconut and bake for another 10 minutes.
When cool, mix in the dried fruit. Put in a jar or plastic box and save for breakfast (if you have the willpower).