Better Breakfasts & Snack Bars

Delicious, Wholesome Food For Busy Holidays

I grew up hearing that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Since I don’t really feel hungry until midmorning, I spent many years eating food I didn’t like when I didn’t want it. Even when my own kids came along, I felt constrained to make them what was assumed to be a healthy breakfast, usually a whole grain cereal with milk and fruit. Neither of them really likes an early breakfast either, but our various doctors all insisted that skipping breakfast put a child at a significant disadvantage. What’s a concerned mom to do?

It’s been interesting to follow the flood of contradictory studies about breakfast (and meals in general) that have appeared in recent years. Few dietary scientists still think that the old fashioned hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs is actually healthy, but quite a few suggest that eating some protein first thing has energy, attention, and health benefits. Others point to studies that indicate that whole grains/oatmeal and milk help moderate blood sugar swings. Trendy advice proposes that “intermittent fasting” (allowing at least 16 hours between the evening and morning meals) is the way to go. Other experts propose that several smaller meals, spaced out over the day, are most helpful.

Best Breakfasts For You

Of course, given the tendencies of Western medicine, most studies focus on adult white men. Presumably those based on mice and other critters apply (or not) equally to all people. In any case, opinions are divided, which I take to mean that we can all do what works best for us. After all, no generation has ever lived the way we do now. Our bodies, our health care, and the pace of our lives are all changing faster than we can easily track. All we can do is try to figure out what feels best for us right here, right now.

For me, smaller meals work better, especially when the spacing is dictated by actual hunger, not the clock. Working at home for many years allowed me the luxury of actually listening to my body most of the time. When taking care of others, from my late husband and parents to my thriving but fast growing grandkids, I’ve had to learn their hunger signals as well. With the kiddos, I just assume that they are always hungry, and indeed, as soon as they come in the door, they head for the fresh fruit on their little table. Their parents are often hungry as well, so when they’re rushing out the door, they can grab some homemade breakfast/power bars.

Start With Good Granola

Over the years, I’ve spent a small fortune trying out new versions of granola bars. from organic and whole-foods types to vegan and sugar- and gluten-free. Since most are either too sweet and gummy or tasteless and dry as sawdust, I decided to make my own. I started with my favorite homemade granola, which is very adaptable. This simple, unsweetened granola is delicious for breakfast or snacks and makes a lovely topping for yogurt or baked fruit crisps. Not surprisingly, it’s also a satisfying base for granola breakfast bars (see below), which also make a yummy snack. Dried fruit tends to get rock hard if mixed into this toasted blend, so just add them when you’re ready to eat.

Sugar-Free Granola Mix

6 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1-2 cups raw almonds
1 cup raw hazelnuts
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1 cup raw sesame seeds
1 cup raw hulled sunflower seeds
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place each ingredient in a rimmed baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted: about 20-30 minutes for oats, 12-15 minutes for larger nuts, 6-8 minutes for seeds and coconut flakes. Combine all in a large bowl and toss to mix. Store in tightly sealed jars on the shelf for up to a week or in the fridge for up to a month. Makes about 10 cups (seeds snug in between larger stuff).

Better Breakfast (and Snack) Bars

Slightly sweet, delectably rich, utterly crunchable, these wholesome and deeply satisfying breakfast bars combine homemade granola with the kind of nut butter that has just two ingredients; nuts and salt. Use plain or chunky organic peanut butter, almond butter, or hazelnut butter, or make your own walnut or pecan butter for an unusual treat. (To make nut butter, toast nuts until crisp, then grind in a food processor to desired chunkiness or smoothness.) Puffed millet or rice lighten up the bars, and brown rice syrup is subtly sweet and helps everything stick together nicely. Change up the ingredients freely, trying different combinations of nut butters, nuts, and seeds. Use your favorite kinds of dried fruit (I like dried tart cherries), and add some chocolate chips for extra energy when hiking or biking.

Vegan Breakfast Bars

3/4-1 cup brown rice syrup at room temperature
1-1/2 cup nut butter at room temperature
2-3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups granola (mine or your favorite kind)
2 cups puffed rice or millet
1/4 cup flax seeds
1-2 cups optional extras
(nuts, golden raisins, chocolate chips, toasted coconut flakes)

Loosely line a large baking pan (13 x 9 inch) with waxed paper, set aside. Combine brown rice syrup and nut butter in a large glass bowl and microwave over low heat until soft (1-2 minutes), or put in a large saucepan over lowest heat and stir until blended. Remove from heat and adjust syrup amount to taste. Stir in remaining ingredients; mix will be thick and sticky. Dump it in the prepared pan, wet your hands and firmly pat to flatten. Cover with more waxed paper and chill in refrigerator for at least an hour. When cold, cut into squares or bars, wrap each in waxed paper, then bag and freeze. Serves at least one.

 

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Holiday Bread Wreaths

Beautiful, Easy, Delicious

At a recent women’s retreat, when asked about the most important aspects of the winter holidays, the nearly universal response was “the food!”. Holiday baking is a much loved tradition for many families, and mine is no exception. For many years, the kids and I happily made cookies and cakes, bagels and soft pretzels, and breads both quick and slow. As the kids moved on into their own lives, my holiday baking was mainly for gifting, but the eventual arrival of grandchildren renewed my making and baking. These days, my kitchen is once more cheerfully filled with flour and sprinkles and sticky with dough and frosting.

The children especially enjoy making hands-on edibles from cookies to cinnamon rolls. My own favorites include festive bread wreaths, stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. Beautiful, aromatic, and far easier than they look, the bread wreaths have become popular party and potluck contributions. I’ve learned to work on floured, rimmed baking sheets to minimize the mess and eliminate trying to move a prepped wreath before it’s baked firm. Basically, you make a circle of dough, stuffed with whatever you fancy. Scissor snips every inch or so along the outer edge open up the circle into individual portions to be pulled off informally or sliced with care.

Any Way You Slice It

To make a wreath, you pat out a sheet of dough, add a filling, then roll it up a lot or a little. Tightly rolled dough makes very pretty cinnamon or jam filled spirals, while a twice-over fold works better for tangy fillings of spinach and feta or soft goat cheese and mushrooms. Either way, you shape the stuffed dough into a long snake, about 28-30 inches long and 8-10 inches wide, which bites its own tail. In other words, once spread with filling, roll the dough lengthwise fairly tightly and join into a round, pinching ends firmly together so they don’t fall apart.

Now, with kitchen scissors, make even cuts all around the outer edge, cutting to within one inch of the inner edge. If you make the cuts thin (about 1-inch apart), you can twist every other slice to the inside of the circle for a very pretty look. Wider cuts (up to 2-inches apart) work best with thicker and more complex fillings. As the dough rises, the wreath gets wider, so center the wreath on the baking sheet to leave room for expansion Ready?

Basic Bread Wreath Dough

1-1/4 cups hot water
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
2-1/4 teaspoons dry yeast
1/4 cup avocado or plain vegetable oil
4-5 cups unbleached flour

In a mixing bowl, combine hot water, sugar, salt, and yeast. Let stand until yeast blooms (about 15 minutes). Stir in oil and enough flour to make a soft dough. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes, then transfer to a floured, rimmed baking sheet. Roll or pat into a long U-shape about 28-30 inches long and 6-7 inches deep. Fill, cut, and bake as directed in the filling recipes.

Scrumptious Stuffings

There are so many ways to go with these lovely creations; add dried fruits, chopped nuts, and flaked coconut to the cinnamon rolls, spread the dough with homemade jam or peanut butter and honey or chocolate chips for sweet treats. Savory wreaths can be filled with pretty much any rich, yummy appetizer spread or dip, from artichoke and cheese to smoked salmon, as long as it’s thick, since runny fillings just make a mess. Here are some good places to start:

Cinnamon Swirl Wreath

1 batch bread wreath dough
1/2 cup avocado or plain vegetable oil
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon each coriander, ginger, and cardamom
1 cup granulated sugar

Working on a floured, rimmed baking sheet, brush rolled out dough, leaving half-inch edges oil-free. Sift dry ingredients together and sprinkle evenly over the oil. Roll dough up lengthwise to make a fairly tightly “snake” and form into a round, pinching ends firmly together. With kitchen scissors, make even cuts all around the outer edge, cutting to within one inch of the inner edge. If you make cuts 1-inch apart, you can twist every other slice to the inside of the circle for a very pretty look. Let rise for 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees F until set and golden (40-50 minutes). Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.

Smoked Salmon Filling

8 ounces soft goat cheese at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon prepared horseradish (optional)
4 green onions, thinly sliced
4 ounces smoked salmon, skinned and flaked
1 batch bread wreath dough

Mash goat cheese with salt, paprika and dill until well blended, then blend in dill, lemon juice, and horseradish if using. Add green onions and salmon and gently fold until well mixed. On a rimmed, floured baking sheet, prepare dough as above. With a soft spatula, spread salmon mixture over prepared dough, leaving 1/2 inch edges free of spread. Gently roll up dough and join into a round, pressing ends together well. With kitchen scissors, make even cuts 2-inches wide all around the outer edge, cutting to within one inch of the inner edge. Let rise for 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees F until set and golden (40-50 minutes). Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.

Spinach And Feta Filling

3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 bunch spinach, stemmed and shredded
1 pound firm ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh flat Italian parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
6 ounces dry feta cheese, crumbled
1 batch bread wreath dough

In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, garlic, onion and salt over medium high heat and cook until soft (6-7 minutes). Add spinach, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook until wilted (2-3 minutes). Remove from heat and set aside, uncovered. In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta with lemon juice, parsley and dill, then fold in crumbled feta cheese. On a rimmed, floured baking sheet, prepare dough as above. With a soft spatula, spread spinach mixture over prepared dough, leaving 1/2 inch edges free of spread. Gently roll up dough and join into a round, pressing ends together well. With kitchen scissors, make even cuts 2-inches wide all around the outer edge, cutting to within one inch of the inner edge. Let rise for 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees F until set and golden (40-50 minutes). Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.

 

 

 

 

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Heartwarming Winter Meals To Share

 

Seasonal Sorrow And Kindness

Right now, I’m sad and I’m glad. Sad for our weary, beleaguered world and glad for every glimmer of clarity and light. Do you think sad is bad? In the face of enormous social pressure, I claim my right to seasonal sorrow. Though commercial interests have turned winter into a round of food and gifting holidays, our deep nature knows better. As the light drains away and the shadows gather, lots of people struggle with the slow slide into seasonal sadness that’s as ancient as humanity. If many cultures celebrate(d) the winter solstice with fire and music, feasting and dancing, the surrounding weeks and months were quiet times. For most folks, winters brought restricted travel, reduced social interactions, and more solitary chores of mending and making. Apart from that one cheerful party on the darkest night, the season was reflective rather than rowdy.

At heart, I think many of us are troubled by the relentless cultural insistence on upbeat good cheer, on buying and getting, on gorging and excess. Our spirits need the solemn, meditative winter time to balance the busyness of warmer, lighter seasons. For one thing, solemn doesn’t mean sad; it means serious, whole hearted, sincere, honest, and genuine. Solemn times are times to be honest with ourselves, to look clearly at our daily lives and our cultural assumptions. Solemnity used to be associated with ceremony, something we’re gradually losing as a culture. We don’t have much patience for ceremony anymore, and in some ways, that’s probably all to the good.

Claiming Kindness

These days, we’re apt to find ceremonious manners pretentious and annoying, favoring the casual over the punctiliously civil. Surely that’s a step ahead, since “good manners” have masked judgmental, racist, and sexist behavior for generations, if not millennia. Replacing artificial manners with genuine feeling is very revealing, as we see plainly now. Losing the pretense of civility has exposed more serious issues, as displayed in headlines any day of the week. When civil discourse is replaced by braying cruelty and crude rudeness, it’s definitely time for some serious reflection. Who do we want to be as a people, as a nation among nations?

I for one want to stand up for kindness. Even if good manners are out of favor, kindness shines in a dark and dreary world. Though it’s sometimes harder to see, kindness is as essential to human nature as evil. While people in power are tragically apt to get entrapped in selfishness, greed, and cruelty, an impressive catalog of scientific studies reveal that most people are basically kind. It’s fascinating to learn that heroes generally act first and think later. When natural disasters occur, the same people who spout horrible, disrespectful yap about those they see as “other” may be quick to put their early responder skills to use, courageously saving people from those detested categories. There’s good evidence that when there’s no time to think, we intuitively act with kindness and compassion.

Sharing As Equals

It’s heartening to know that our fastest responses honor our common humanity. Let’s hold on to that, since when we overthink things, situations tend to get complicated, and not in a good way. Acting from the heart lets us bring our full selves to the table, sharing from kindness, not just guilt or compunction. I’m reminded of this when I serve at a community dinner; when I first started volunteering, I cooked and served food cheerfully but stayed in the kitchen like a good introvert. Not until I saw more experienced folks sitting down with our neighbors did I realize that the gift of fellowship was at least as valuable as the food itself. Sharing a meal, sharing conversation, making jokes together, all these small acts build community as they build friendships. Instead of playing Lady Bountiful, we come to the same table and share the same food as equals. It seems so obvious now, but when we live and move within our bubble of comfortable life, it’s easy to use that bubble as insulation and fail to make genuine connections with those who don’t enjoy comfortable means or think differently.

In any season, sharing wholesome, sustaining food and fellowship is one of the more joyful things we can do together. In this season of excess, I especially appreciate the way simple, plant-based food links us to the land and the cycles of nature. Dried beans, for instance, have carried countless families through the cold months for thousands of years. Like millions of people before me, I find hearty winter dishes especially comforting when politics and weather seem equally bleak. Here are some satisfying recipes to share or to savor in meditative solitude. To your health!

A Speedy Stir-Fry

When I’m tired and hungry, this quick dish saves me from snacking on junk. Bright and sassy, simple and savory, it’s also healthy and hearty enough to keep us satiated for hours. Vary the seasoning as you please; use chili powder or curry instead of garlic and lemon, add sliced onion, peppers, or mushrooms, or whatever you fancy.

Sizzling Chickpeas With Kale and Garlic

1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
2-3 plump cloves garlic, chopped
1-1/2 cups (1 can) cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/4 teaspoon herb salt (or any)
2 cups thinly sliced kale
pinch of smoked paprika
2-3 lemon wedges

Combine oil and garlic over medium high heat in a heavy skillet and cook to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add chickpeas and salt and cook, stirring often, until chickpeas are a bit crispy but not burned (8-10 minutes). Add kale, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook until kale is wilted but still bright green (2-3 minutes). Serve hot with a sprinkle of paprika and a wedge of lemon. Serves at least one.

Irresistible Hummus

More or less the same few ingredients can also be transformed into this silky, snappy hummus. There are so many kinds of hummus out there these days that it’s easy to overlook the real thing. Basic yet bodacious, this quickly made recipe garners lots of wow! comments and vanishes fast. Served with pretty pepper strips and cauliflower florets, it’s about as healthy as party food gets yet tastes festive enough for joyful sharing.

Not So Humble Hummus

1-1/2 cups (1 can) cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2-3 plump cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup tahini (fresh if possible)
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika

In a food processor, puree chickpeas and garlic with a few tablespoons of water to get a very smooth texture (3-4 minutes). Add tahini, salt, and lemon juice to taste, thinning with water as needed. Flavor should be big, bright, and clean. Scoop into a serving bowl, top with oil, smoked paprika, and a little lemon zest. Makes about 2 cups. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

 

 

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Gingerbread And Gingersnaps

Holiday Baking With Littles

I’ve always loved to celebrate special events and times but over the years (ok, fine; decades), my ideas about what makes a holiday delightful have changed a much as I have myself. Though glitz and glitter generally leave me chilly, I must admit that receiving an astonishing surprise birthday cake in triple-toned, puffy frosting with edible glitter on top was kind of a game changer. Really, that amazing cake!

My grandkids (now 5 and nearly 3) love to bake, and we make bread of some kind nearly every week. I’ve developed several kid-proof bread recipes that can take over zealous kneading and pummeling or almost no kneading in stride, and we usually make bread dinosaurs and bread bunnies and bread asteroids as well as lots and lots of cinnamon rolls. However, after reading some favorite books about Scandinavian children’s holiday activities this weekend, they decided we should make gingerbread.

Sculptable Gingerfolk

When my kids were little, I developed a recipe for gingerbread that was sort of like play dough; instead of rolling out flat and using cookie cutters, kids could roll balls of dough for heads and bodies and roll little logs for arms and legs. My original recipe used soft butter, but since my granddaughter is dairy sensitive, I swapped for avocado oil, which has a light but subtly butter flavor. I also use a flour blend, because while using whole wheat pastry flour alone gives cookies a very tender crumb, it tends to make for overly dry baked goods. A half-and-half blend works fine and lends a richer flavor to pretty much anything. I imagine this recipe would also work with a gluten-free flour mix but you’d need to add water carefully to get the right consistency.

Decorations can be made with raisins or currents (smaller, thus better for buttons and eyes) as well as various revolting little hard candies which always look better than they taste. You can of course frost these, glaze them with a brushable mixture of lemon juice and powdered sugar, or eat them plain. Alas, I have not yet brought myself to buy edible glitter but I feel sure the day is coming…

Soft (Vegan!) Gingerbread People

1-3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1-3/4 cups unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon each ground ginger, cinnamon and coriander
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup avocado or any cooking oil
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses

Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Sift dry ingredients together, set aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, brown sugar and molasses with 1/4 cup boiling water. Add flour in 3 parts, adding a little more water 1 teaspoon at a time as needed to make a firm dough. Roll into a ball and lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet. Divide dough into 10-12 pieces, then use each piece to shape a ginger-person or snow-person. Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes; when done, cookies will feel slightly springy to the touch. Cool on a rack before frosting. Makes 10-12 gingerfolk.

Make It Snappy

Most adults of my acquaintance appreciate those thin, very gingery cookies that need to be rolled out and cut. These ginger cookies are quite snappy and have a lively, even zesty flavor but are made by rolling little dough balls between your palms, which is much easier and less messy. Little bits of crystalized ginger add extra zip and a light dusting of flaked sea salt (optional) makes them brighter still. They freeze beautifully if well wrapped and vanish fast if not.

Gingery Snaps

2 cups unbleached white flour
1-3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup minced crystalized ginger
zest from an organic orange
1/2 teaspoon Malden or any finishing salt (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together, set aside. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar, then stir in eggs, molasses, vinegar, orange zest and crystalized ginger. Add sifted ingredients and blend well. Roll into small balls (under an inch) and place several inches apart on a rimmed baking sheet (they spread quite a bit). Bake for 10-12 minutes, until set and crinkled on top. Makes about 100 cookies. Serves at least one.

 

 

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