I find it fascinating the different associations people have with the foods in our culture. Take, for instance, one of my favorite breakfast menus, granola and yogurt. Ask children about granola and they will smack their lips and reply “granola bars.” A person growing up in the 1970s might remember granola as “something you ate while you were hiking” and then recall confusion as to how to eat the yogurt and granola served at an exclusive French restaurant and inn.
In other circles, granola refers to the lifestyles of a certain genre of people. To be a granola means that you probably compost your garbage, practice organic farming, wear Birkenstocks and burn wood. Granolas are the kind of folks who observe healthy culinary and social practices in their life.
So it was interesting to me to learn that granola was actually developed as a health food by a Swiss nutritionist, Dr. Bircher-Benner, near the end of the 19th century. Named muesli, the German word for mixture, the ingredients of the forerunner to granola included raw and roasted cereals like oats, wheat and barley; dried fruits like raisins and apricots; nuts; bran; wheat germ; dried milk solids; and sugar.
Until the start of the health craze in the 1980s, muesli and granola tended to be available mostly in gourmet and health food stores, trendy restaurants, and homes where people made their own. Then Americans decided to get healthy. The wholesome goodness of granola was discovered, and commercial food companies began mass production.
The complement to granola, yogurt, also led a fascinating life before arriving at our breakfast table. Yogurt is cultured milk, developed from the action of acid-producing bacteria. The friendly yogurt bacteria, known as lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus, eat the milk sugar called lactose, making yogurt more easily digestible for those on lactose-intolerant diets.
Yogurt-making dates to biblical times. Legend has it that an angel told Abraham the secret of making yogurt. While the process was probably discovered by accident, it was a way of preserving milk. In India, the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe, yogurt is made of cow, sheep, goat, buffalo, mare and even reindeer milk. In Western Europe and the United States, cow’s milk is preferred.
Until the early 1950s, yogurt in the United States could be found only in ethnic markets, as it is an important component of many cuisines. In the 1965 edition of Fannie Farmer, yogurt was described merely as a “substitute for sour cream.” The 1979 edition reflected trends in the American diet and included directions on how to make yogurt. Today the supermarket shelves are lined with multicolored yogurt containers, and Americans consume more than 1 billion cups per year.
You don’t have to be a descendant of Abraham or the relative of a hippie to produce your own yogurt and granola. Nor do you need sophisticated tools and equipment. The procedures are straightforward and simple. Yogurt and granola making even allow for personal taste and creativity, which is always helpful in households like mine that try to involve all members of the family in food preparation.
A necessary tool in yogurt production is an accurate thermometer. The temperature of the milk when you add the starter is the most critical step. While catalogs for cooks sell electronic yogurt-makers that provide the temperature-controlled environment at which the yogurt bacteria work best, I found glass canning jars in a warm oven work just as well.
With the exception of large flake, unsweetened coconut, the ingredients for granola may be found in the local supermarket. But since the source of the coconut is the local health food store, I prefer to wander down the bin-packed aisles, selecting my grains and nuts. I find these products to be fresher and more economical, and I can purchase the exact quantity I need.
My family of five often munches through a batch of granola and a quart of yogurt in just a week. We toss granola in cookie doughs and muffin batters and sprinkle it on ice cream. Yogurt is a great after-school snack and a base for dips and dressings. The alternative to boxes of puffed rice and fruity Os, granola and yogurt are comfort food for me. For mere pennies and a little effort, I can provide tasty, wholesome nourishment that my kids actually want to eat. And I don’t wear Birkenstocks — yet.
Maine Maple Granola
4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant or quick cooking)
2/3 cup wheat germ
2/3 cup unsweetened big flake coconut 1/3 cup sesame seeds 1 cup raw cashews or 1 cup coarsely chopped unblanched almonds
1/2 cup powdered nonfat dry milk 1 tablespoon cinnamon 2 teaspoons nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup Maine maple syrup
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup canola or safflower oil
In a small saucepan on top of the stove, combine the Maine maple syrup, honey and oil. Heat gently until the honey is melted, stir in the pure vanilla extract and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Pour the syrup mixture over the mix and stir until evenly mixed and moistened.
Spread the granola on a cookie sheet and slip into a preheated 300-degree F. oven. Set the timer for 10 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and turn the granola. Repeat until the granola is golden and toasted, about 30 minutes. Be careful. The edges brown very quickly.
Let the granola cool in the pan on a rack. When cool, break into pieces and store in a tightly sealed container.
If desired, 2 cups of dried fruit such as raisins, figs, dates and cranberries may be added to the granola. Serve with fresh fruit, yogurt or milk.
My Maine frugality just won’t allow making a fresh batch of granola until the last of the old one has been eaten. Chocolate Chip Granola Bars is the perfect solution to clean out the granola jar.
Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter 1/3 cup honey 5 cups Maine Maple Granola
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup chocolate chips
In a saucepan combine the butter, honey and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
Stir together the granola and whole wheat flour. Pour honey mixture over the granola mixture. Stir until the granola mixture is well coated, and the honey has cooled to room temperature. Stir in the chocolate chips.
Press mixture into a greased 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan. Cool and then cut into bars. Makes 24 bars.
1 quart milk (may be part skim or whole) 2 tablespoons fresh plain yogurt (unpasteurized)
Heat the milk to 190 degrees F. Let cool to 110 degrees.
Whisk in the starter (the fresh plain yogurt). Pour into jars and seal with lids or pour into bowls and cover with plastic wrap.
Set the yogurt in a warm, draft-free location that is around 110 degrees. A gas oven with a pilot light on will work. Or set the jars in an insulated cooler with 2 large jars of warm water. You must keep the yogurt undisturbed at 110 degrees for 6-8 hours for the best incubation. The mixture will be creamy and thick.
Refrigerate for at least 3 hours before eating. The yogurt keeps in the refrigerator for a week to 10 days.
It may be flavored with fresh or frozen fruits, jellies or jams, vanilla syrup, maple syrup and pudding or Jell-O mix. For best results, flavor just before eating.
Yogurt that incubates too long will separate. There will be a layer of watery substance on the top known as whey and thick solids on the bottom called curds. Once this occurs, it cannot be reversed.
Be sure to use a starter that has not been pasteurized to prolong shelf life and that contains active, live yogurt cultures. You may use homemade yogurt as a starter, but every month or so it is a good idea to start again with a fresh commercial starter.
It is important that all containers and tools used to make the yogurt are clean and sanitized.