To me, chewy granola bars are the Holy Grail of ‘making at home what other people buy at the store.’ I’ve tried a lot of granola bar recipes that are basically just bar cookies, and they’re good. But they’re not granola bars… And they fall into a crumble if you ever try to pack them anywhere. Which is the point of granola bars, right?
I thought it just wasn’t possible. Until a few years ago, a friend told me a secret. It went something like this.
If you follow a recipe for rice krispie bars, melting butter and marshmallows, but stir in toasted oats instead of ricerofoam, you get what you always craved. A perfect, luscious but sturdy, chewy granola bar. My Man was an instant convert. It became one of those cute couple things. Whenever he was heading out on some ground-truthing expedition or long road trip I’d pack up an entire pan of granola bars, fortified with nuts, seeds, raisins, and if he was lucky, M&Ms. He would offer in return a slavish devotion to my “cooking” skills.
But, c’mon. Marshmallows? Could I really go forward into the world with a straight face and sense of dignity? I wondered for years how marshmallows are made, and what about them worked so well. I considered trying to make my own marshmallows, but a glance at a recipe scared me off. Besides, I was pretty sure the fluff of them was not what did the trick. What are marshmallows without fluff? This question macerated in my brain, and the answer slowly surfaced.
Sugar cooked to the soft candy stage. Right? Maybe. I was summoning courage to experiment with this idea when, as it tends to go, life threw me the answer again. And again. First a recipe on smitten kitchen, which I bookmarked but didn’t act on, then another in my new fave, Good to the Grain.
My first try at GttG’s recipe I overbaked. They were too darkly caramelized for my taste, and hell to get out of the pan. My Man still thought they were great, and they definitely had The Chew. So I tried again this morning, with some tweaks to the recipe which I thought much, much too sweet. After mixing the toasted oats with the honey syrup I noticed how much it looked like my old marshmallow granola bar recipe. Hmmm. The book calls for baking them, even though the components have already been cooked, more or less. But as an experiment, I just scooped it straight into a pan and let it cool. With a sharp knife I cut squares. They looked just like my old recipe, but glassier. Removal from the pan? Easy. Chewiness? Perfect. Flavor? Delicious. Still too sweet for my teeth, but a little more monkeying ought to get it right. And in the meantime My Man will love them.
The book warns that these are “more cookie than health food” but I think her recipe is actually more candy than cookie. Here’s the version I used this morning, which has 1/2 cup more oats than the original, plus a cup of nuts instead of the half cup of raisins. I will be adding even more oats next time, and maybe some peanut butter too.
Perfect Granola Bars (in Progress)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups oats, she called for old fashioned rolled oats, but I used three-minute oats cuz that’s what I stock in my kitchen**
1 cup chopped pecans (or whatever nuts you’ve got)
1/2 cup ground flax seeds (grind in your coffee grinder), optional
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon blackstrap molasses
1/2 teaspoon salt
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the oats and stir to coat. Cook for ten or fifteen minutes, stirring often, until many of the oats have turned a toasty brown and the whole smells rich and nutty. It’s important to toast the oats thoroughly since these bars don’t get baked.
When the oats are done pour them off into a large bowl and add the pecans to the pan. Toast the pecans as per the oats. Meanwhile (if you’re a multi-tasker, or next if not) measure the honey, sugar, molasses and salt into a small saucepan. Stir together and set over low heat. Cook for five or six minutes. This is the only tricky part, and unfortunately I think the whole success of the recipe depends on it, and I might have just lucked out last time. You are basically candying, of which legions of literature has been written. In GttG, she says simply “cook for 6 minutes, until thoroughly boiling.” But I suspect there’s more to it. Because how can you quote a time, when you don’t know the exact amount of heat being applied? I stopped my syrup after 5 minutes, because I was afraid it was getting too hot.
If you’re not familiar with cooking sugar, it passes through several stages, starting with syrup and ending at hard candy. I don’t know too much about it. But somewhere in the middle I think is the “soft ball stage” when a drop of syrup into a glass of cold water congeals into a soft but cohesive ball. I think that’s what you’re looking for.
I didn’t use the water test though, I just winged it. Basically, you should have a vigorous looking boil for some minutes. When you feel the muses breath over your shoulder, remove the syrup from the heat and pour over the oats and pecans. Stir it all up very thoroughly, you want every oat coated. Scoop it out into a greased pan, I used a 7×11 inch pyrex. GttG called for a 9×9.
Let sit till completely cool, loosen the edges with a butter knife, then tip the block out onto a cutting board and cut into whatever size you like. Store in the fridge, or individually wrapped if at room temperature, to keep them from fusing back together.
If you were feeling decadent, you could melt some bittersweet chocolate and dip the bars. But that would kind of defeat the ‘workhorse’ nature of these easy to pack appetite satisfiers.
**3 minute, or “quick” oats are not any more processed than old fashioned oats, both are steamed before being rolled. 3 minute oats are just rolled thinner. Although they are much less fashionable, I like them better in almost every application. Cooked into oatmeal they make a creamier porridge, and as granola I feel like they digest better.