The kids are back in school, which can bestow a sense of routine in a household — except when it doesn’t, as when school activities kick into high gear.
Healthy snacks become a lifeline, whether for an out-the-door breakfast, tucked into a lunch bag, or to appease an appetite until dinner.
Granola bars began appearing on grocery shelves in the mid-1970s, often as thin slabs of oats, honey and earnestness. What began as hippie fodder gradually morphed into bourgeois decadence, with bars including chocolate chips and macadamia nuts, corn syrup and marshmallows.
There still are good bars out there, but why not make your own? It’s easy, thriftier and the bars can be customized for everyone in the house. (Individually wrapped in foil, granola bars last a week.)
Better yet, everyone can make their own versions to have on hand.
The basic recipe starts with old-fashioned rolled oats and a sweetener that also acts as a binder. That’s often honey, but other options include brown rice or maple syrup, which also makes them vegan.
Flaked coconut is popular, and you can use the sweetened kind — because it’s delicious, right? But you still can have coconut flavor with less sugar by using unsweetened coconut, available as finely chopped (or desiccated) or in shavings.
Wheat germ boosts nutrition, as do almonds or other nuts, which also provide crunch.
Customization comes to the fore in the choice of dried fruit. You can use any combo that adds up to 1 1/2 cups. Our base recipe, from Ina Garten, calls for dried apricots, dates and dried cranberries. But we played with pineapple and papaya, raisins and mango.
One discovery gleaned from various recipes: Adding a teaspoon of instant coffee (or espresso) powder has a way of tempering the sweetness without making the bars taste bitter, adding a depth of flavor that we really like. But it’s optional.
Ingredients are one thing; execution is another. A crumbling granola bar is frustrating and messy, so take your time when mixing the hot honey mixture into the dry ingredients until all surfaces are evenly coated. Press firmly into the prepared pan; dipping your fingers in water combats the stickiness.
Then, once the bars are baked, press down on them with a spatula or pancake flipper. Let them cool completely before cutting.
One last thing: You don’t have to go to school to enjoy these snacks.
Makes 12. Note: Use any combination of dried fruits you desire, totaling 1 1/2 cups. Adapted from “Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics,” by Ina Garten.
2 cups old-fashioned (not quick- cooking) oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded coconut, preferably unsweetened
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup chopped pitted dates
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey or other sweetener, such as brown rice syrup
1/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon instant coffee powder or espresso powder, optional
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-by-8-inch (or 9-by 9-inch) pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, cutting paper to fit so it extends beyond the pan a few inches on two sides. (Two sides of the pan will remain unlined.) Spray surface with cooking spray (or coat with a thin layer of butter).
Toss the oatmeal, almonds, coconut and wheat germ on a sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Stir in dried fruit.
Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.
Combine the butter, honey, brown sugar, salt and, if using, the coffee powder in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook and stir for 1 minute. Remove from heat and add vanilla.
Pour over the oats and fruit mixture and stir together slowly and thoroughly, taking time to make sure all surfaces are coated.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Wet your fingers and press evenly and firmly (mixture will be quite warm).
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until light golden brown. Remove from oven and, using a spatula, press down firmly across the surface of the bars. Let cool completely, at least 2 to 3 hours. Using the paper overhang, lift the bars from the pan and, with a sharp heavy knife, cut in half, then each half again into 6 long bars.
Wrap individually in foil. Granola bars will keep at room temperature for a week.