Photo by Andreae Prozesky
Years after my own school days wrapped themselves up in a tidy, red-tape-and-useless-diploma-wrapped academic package, I still catching myself sniffing the air on cool September mornings, hoping to catch a whiff of the intoxicating back-to-school olfactory cocktail of pencil shavings, new socks and shoes, and crisp McIntosh apples.
I always loved the rituals of back-to-school shopping, arranging my newly acquired supplies (standard-issue tartan pencil case, multi-subject binder, weapon-concealing geometry kit) in my canvas backpack. This was back in the stone age when downtown St. John’s had department stores; some years my mother and sister and I, after pillaging Piper’s and Target, would stop for lunch at the Woolworth’s cafeteria for a nourishing meal of red-heat-lamp-warm fries and a fine dessert of Jell-O cubes topped with “whipped topping” and a quarter of a maraschino cherry. I love Jell-O in a cube to this very day.
Now that I have my own school-age daughter, I get to relive it. It’s not quite as much fun paying for school supplies as it once was picking them out, and, due to our twenty-first-century horror of any child being bullied off a cliff for having the wrong kind of glue stick, you’re not really allowed to buy anything fun any more, but, still, it’s back-to-school. The fresh start of untouched scribblers, the erasers showing no evidence of your ever having made a mistake. It’s a time full of hope.
School lunches aren’t what they used to be. Peanut butter might as well be napalm, the way people go on about it. And tuna sandwiches are a stinky, fishy lunch food of the past. I’m not about to weigh in on whether the allergy business in schools is motivated by a genuine desire to keep kids safe or by a wide-reaching allergy hysteria fueled by the big-business pharmaceutical companies or by the school system’s fear of lawsuits. It’s probably a bit of each. Deadly food allergies are incredibly rare, far rarer than you would probably think, but they do happen, and if I were the mom of the kid who the doctors said might stop breathing if the kid next to her ate a peanut butter sandwich, I might react in a way that other parents might not understand. Who knows? I’m already the parent who sends her kid to birthday parties with her own gluten-free cupcakes, and it’s a slippery slope from there.
It’s not only schools that ban certain lunch foods, of course. Plenty of office buildings have a no-peanuts policy, and, well, there are some people who would say that bringing a room-temperature tuna sandwich into a shared kitchen space with recycled air and no windows should be a punishable offence anyway. Tuna’s out, peanut butter’s out, and frustration is in.
One of the recipes I’ve fiddled with and tested with over the last year is for crunchy granola bars. They were a staple lunch food for us children of the children of the sixties. Then Quaker Chewy Dipps appeared, with their prominent Degrassi placement and their chocolate chips and marshmallows and chocolatey coating. How did anyone expect us to learn anything? No wonder our teachers chain-smoked in the lounge every second that they could.
Then, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, the crunchy granola bar started to make a comeback. They’re almost as tooth-rottingly sweet as the chocolate-dipped chewy marshmallow granola confections of the 1990s, but they’ve got the odd whole grain in them, so they’re all right. They’re not all that cheap, though, for something composed primarily of horse feed, and one plastic-foil wrapper for every two skinny bars adds up to a lot of waste.
In all my fiddling with my granola bar recipe, there was one thing I got wrong for a long time. In my attempts to make the bars not too junky, I kept trying to reduce the sugar. It just didn’t work. The crunchiness has to come from some kind of sugary syrup. It can be corn syrup, which is what it would be in most commercial granola bars, or it can be honey, which is delicious and relatively good for you but which has a strong flavour that some kids (well, mine at least) don’t like. I usually use brown rice syrup, which you can buy in health food stores and in the health food section at Dominion. It’s not very sweet-tasting, and it’s almost buttery. I don’t worry too much about a bit of sugar syrup if the stuff the sugar syrup is holding together is all wholesome grains and nuts. I just send a crisp, tooth-scouring fall apple along with it and hope for the best.
Crunchy granola bars
1 ½ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
¾ cups various seeds (I use a combination of pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, but sunflower seeds, toasted soybeans, coconut – which is usually allowed, as it’s not related to true nuts – and other seeds are also tasty)
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon, if desired
4 tablespoons corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or honey (or a combination)
½ teaspoon coarse salt (kosher salt or pickling salt are fine)
1. Line a 4 ½ x 9” bread pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the two longs sides a little – you will use the overlap to remove the bars from the pan.
2. In a pan over medium-low heat, stirring often, toast oats just until they become fragrant and slightly golden, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove oats to a bowl and add the seeds, stirring well.
3. In the pan, combine butter, sugar, cinnamon, syrup or honey, and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until butter melts and mixture begins to bubble, about 3 minutes.
4. Pour sugar mixture over oats and seeds and stir to combine. Quickly turn mixture into prepared bread pan and press down with a rubber spatula (or your fingers if it’s not too hot). It should be even across the surface. Refrigerate until set, at least 30 minutes. Using parchment paper overhang, lift slab of granola to a cutting board and cut into eight slices. Keep granola bars in an airtight container, preferably in a cool place so they don’t soften up (I keep mine in the fridge).
PS Oats can sometimes be contaminated with gluten, so people with Celiac disease and some acute gluten sensitivities can’t tolerate them. I make these with slightly crushed cornflakes instead of oats and they’re marvelous (I skip the toasting step). Check the box to make sure they’re gluten-free if this is a concern for you.