I have been a fan of homemade granola for as long as I can remember. I literally grew up with it as my mother made it way before it was a trend to do so.
When I was in college, I would pack big tins of her granola to take back to school with me. I would snack on it when I studied, and top my college cafeteria salads with it. Today, I love having a hearty homemade granola on hand to add to my morning yogurt or take with me as an easy breakfast snack when I travel.
As I began cooking for myself, I adapted my mother's recipe with my favorite fruit and nuts. My favorite granola changed as my tastes changed.
And, that is the great thing about granola. It is totally customizable. You can add or subtract anything you don't like as long as you have an oat base. Recently, I was in Los Angeles visiting two of my favorite food friends and it just so happened that we all brought our granola as gifts. I brought my recipe that I am sharing here.
Bob gave me some of his new granola that he made a bit more austere for his January cleanse. He uses a base of half rolled oats and half rye flakes, and the addition of rye flakes gives his granola a delicious savoriness. Finally, Anthony gave me a jar of his version of Eleven Madison Park restaurant's sweet and salty granola that is so addicting, you can eat it by the handfuls.
There are similarities between all three granolas—we all use maple syrup and dried cherries—but there are differences too, and that is the sheer beauty and deliciousness of it.
I like my granola crisp but not crunchy and I have found that if you add a little granulated white sugar to the oats as they toast, it helps to crisp the mixture. Generally, all the sweeteners are melted with the oil because that is the easiest way to coat the oats and nuts. The added granulated sugar is not melted and therefore adds a rougher crisp texture as it cooks into the mixture.
Besides the secret addition of granulated sugar, I use olive oil where others use coconut oil or canola oil because I like the flavor and viscosity of olive oil, and it is healthy to boot. I sometimes use unsweetened dried coconut but sweetened dried coconut is easier to find. Since I have a low sugar to oats and nuts ratio, it adds some sweetness. I also add salt and vanilla extract to my oil and maple syrup mixture for dimension. When it comes to adding fruit, I always add dried cherries, crystallized ginger and Turkish apricots. Then I add whatever else that I have in the pantry including dried cranberries, and white raisins.
The bottom line is that granola is all about what your favorite flavors are. If you like almonds and dried figs, or hazelnuts, or even bits of dark chocolate, use them instead or alongside my mix-ins. If you have a Trader Joe's store near you, I have found that they are the best and least expensive source for all your granola ingredients. You may decide to try some of their more unusual dried fruits like dried mango in your version. Let me know what your favorite combinations are.
ELIZABETH'S DRIED FRUIT AND NUT GRANOLA
Servings: Makes 40 servings (Each is 1/2 cup)
Start to finish: 50 minutes
8 cups toasted rolled oats (18-ounce container)
2 cups shelled pistachios (8-ounce bag)
1-2 cup pecans, roughly chopped or other favorite nut
2 cups raw pumpkin seeds (8 ounces)
1 cup packed sweetened dried coconut
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup light brown sugar or maple sugar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups dried cherries (8-ounce bag)
2 cups dried cranberries or white raisins
2 cups candied ginger, cut into slivers
2 cups dried apricots cut into slivers, or other dried fruit as desired
Preheat the oven to 300 F.
In a very large bowl, combine the oats, nuts, coconut, granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt. Stir well to blend.
In a small saucepan, warm the maple syrup, brown sugar and olive oil over low heat, stirring gently, until the sugar is melted. Stir to combine the sugar and oil.
Pour over the dry ingredients. Stir over-and-over again to coat all the ingredients equally. Spread the mixture evenly on a piece of parchment paper set into a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until golden. (Note: You will need to check the granola and stir it, about every 15 minutes so that all of the ingredients are toasted and brown.)
Set a timer to go off halfway through the baking time, so that you can give the granola a good stir; this helps it to cook evenly. When it's ready, remove the pan from the oven, and stir well — this will keep it from cooling into a hard, solid sheet — and cool completely.
When cool to touch, transfer the granola back to the very large bowl. Add the dried fruit and stir (or shake, if using a jar or bag) to mix. Store in an airtight container — storage jar, or re-closeable plastic bag.
Serve with yogurt, milk, honey and fruit, or eat straight up!
Nutrition information per serving: 308 calories; 112 calories from fat; 12 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 34 mg sodium; 45 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 26 g sugar; 7 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pit master at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and the author of three books, including "Taming the Flame."