On Achieving Homeostasis: Fruit and Nut Granola Bars with Cacao and Sea Salt

I recently had my yearly physical.  My lipid profile aligned me with the Ikarians.  However, I also had a walnut-sized lump in my left breast that dictated a mammogram.  I am not sure why so many women complain about them.  Having your breasts smashed between two synthetic plates is nothing compared to having them biopsied, penetrated with a needle and then fished around in, like you were searching for car keys in an oversized purse.

Except instead of gathering keys, tissue samples are collected and sent to the lab for testing.  Then a tiny piece of titanium in the shape of a microscopic pigtail is inserted into your breast to tag the lump, and to be with you forevermore. Your boob is bruised.  Then you wait to hear if you have cancer. 

No one talks about this.  Most stop after the electromagnetic radiation.

In an attempt to explain homeostasis, I remember my sixth grade science teacher said a system will desperately try to maintain stability, no matter the cost.  It knows no other path.  If you stop and think, it’s quite incredible—whether a human body, the plant earth, or a broken hollandaise—forces react involuntarily to protect against stimuli that threaten to disturb the balance.

The system doesn’t always succeed.  But the internal fight is there.  So while I await biopsy results, I choose to distract myself by mashing some fruit and oats into squares, operating within the bounds of snack homeostasis. 

The coordinated alliance of figs, cherries, pecans, seeds, and grain melds with maple and honey.  Meanwhile, the added stick of butter threatens to make granola bars about as non-righteous as they can get; yet, also ensures equilibrium among the other ingredients.  It is browned until it becomes nutty and additionally harmonious.

I was worried the cacao would muck up the fruit and oat flavor.  That the nibs would become overpowering, an indolent shroud for the more virtuous bits.  But everything binds into something reminiscent of a seven-layer bar, with the malleable properties of a product put forth by the Quaker Oats man.

The result is glorious.

We tend to walk through life thinking in concrete terms.  Things are either healthy, or not.  Good or bad.  Yet, we are often standing on tectonic plates.

The best we can do is be open, and malleable, and have faith in the forces that bring us back to homeostasis.  And in those that bring us granola bars.

Fruit and Nut Granola Bars with Cacao and Sea Salt
Inspired by Nigel Slater from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard


110 grams (1 stick) salted butter (includes butter to grease the pan)
70 grams (about ½ cup) dried whole figs
60 grams (about ½ cup) pecan halves
40 grams (about ¼ cup) dried sour cherries
30 grams (about ¼ cup) sunflower seeds
180 grams (about 1¼ cups) rolled oats
20 grams (about ¼ cup) shredded unsweetened coconut
35 grams (about cup) almond meal
50 milliliters (about 3½ tbsp) honey
50 milliliters (about 3½ tbsp) maple syrup (grade B preferable)            
90 grams (about a scant ½ cup) superfine sugar (see note)
15 grams (about 2 tbsp) cacao nibs (not chocolate covered)
heaping tsp fleur de sel or other finishing sea salt


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Butter a 9-inch square pan (I used a 11 x 7).  Remove the fig stems and quarter the figs.  In a food processor, finely chop the figs, pecans, cherries, and sunflower seeds until they hold together when pressed. (This can also be done by hand; the finer you chop the ingredients the better the bars will hold together.)  Place in a large bowl and mix in the oats, coconut, and almond meal.

In a large saucepan, melt the remaining butter on medium heat until it turns a deep golden brown and starts to give off nutty aromas; stir in the honey, syrup, and superfine sugar.  When the mixture comes to a rolling boil, add in the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly; stir in the cacao nibs.

Tip the mixture into the prepared pan and press it down firmly.  Scatter the salt evenly on top.  Bake for 20 to 30 minutes.  As it cooks, the edges should start to slightly puff up.  It is done when the rim is golden and the middle puffs up to meet the edges.  As the mixture cools, press it down again. When the mixture is still warm, but cool enough to easily handle, cut into 12 bars.

Let cool completely and then store in an airtight container for 5 days (or freeze).

Makes 12 bars

-If you can’t find unsweetened coconut, you can use 200 grams (about 1cups) oats instead.

-If you don’t have superfine sugar, whirl regular granulated sugar in a food processor.  It’ll take about ¾ cup to make the amount of superfine sugar that you’ll need for this recipe (you may have just a little bit extra).

-If you use a 11 x 7 pan it may need a little more time to bake (closer to 30 minutes), whereas a 9-inch square pan will require a little less time.


A Waffle of Insane Greatness (or What I'm Interested In This Year)

It has taken me a long time to find a decent waffle. So many recipes—particularly the sought after yeasted kind—require an overnight plan.  My wager is most people do not go to bed with the anticipation of wanting a waffle in the morning. 

Yet, I’d bet many of these same folks would not turn down a breakfast that includes maple syrup and butter.  Unless, of course, they have pledged to give up flour, or sugar, or dairy for 2015.  In which case, this subsect may very well be dreaming and scheming for a plate of stacked waffles knowing there is a kale smoothie in their immediate future.

I personally do not have any grand aspirations of mind-body domination for the new year.  Nor do I have goals that align with pureed vegetable drinks.  But I do hope to be kind to my body in the way you might be kind to someone who has just survived shingles or a forth grade piano recital.

So this will include the occasional waffle.

And a waffle of insane greatness is the only kind of waffle I am interested in making.  Particularly one that doesn’t necessitate advanced notice.  This recipe requires the usual suspects in the kitchen and thirty minutes of sitting time for the batter.  And that’s it.

What you get in return are crispy, light waffles that stand up to their hyperbolic namesake.  That they happen to smell faintly of vanilla and require dirtying only one single bowl is additionally motivating.

I will not bore you with descriptors.  You have probably had some decent waffles in your past, maybe even a few great ones.  This is the recipe when time is of the essence and a waffle is what you require. 

So if one kind of greatness will find you dreaming of waffles and one kind will find you actual waffles, I’d suggest the latter.  Insane resolution smoothies don’t last.  Insane waffles do.

The Waffle of Insane Greatness
Adapted from Aretha Frankensteins


½ cup all purpose flour
¼ cup whole wheat or spelt flour
¼ cup cornstarch
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup whole milk or buttermilk
1/3 cup olive oil
1 egg
1½ tsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract


In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; stir to combine.  Whisk in the milk, oil, egg, sugar, and vanilla until no lumps remain.  Let the batter sit for 30 minutes.

To make the waffles, heat your waffle iron: cooking instructions may vary slightly depending on the type you are using.  (I lightly grease mine, which is this, with canola oil.)  Once the iron is preheated, pour in about ½ cup of batter.  Close and let cook about 2 minutes, or until the waffle is golden brown.  (If you are using a stovetop iron you’ll want to flip it after about 60 to 90 seconds; I keep mine on medium to medium-high heat.)

Repeat this process until all the batter is gone.

Makes about ½ dozen waffles.


-The whole grain flour is there to make the batter a little more interesting and I’d highly suggest it.  I don’t see why you couldn’t go fifty-fifty, either.


Double Taza Stout and Stracciatella Ice Cream Con Panna and Good Humans

Good humans are among us.  I recently started dating one.

For one, he always puts the half and half away after making coffee in the morning.  This may seem simple.  But you might want to think twice about a person willing to let your milk spoil.

He was also able to provide three concrete reasons for getting a Christmas tree this year.  The smell.  The lights.  And as a meaningful adjunct to holiday cookies.

He counts his afternoon walk to Flour Bakery, for a coffee and chocolate chip cookie, as activity points.

He is concerned about taking too many dinner helpings for fear there won’t be lunch leftovers.

And though he doesn’t play fast and loose with compliments, they are really something when he dishes them out.

They catch you off-guard. Like claiming you look gorgeous after having just brushed your teeth.  Or calling you a genius for making ice cream. 

You’ll find instructions for such praise-inducing ice cream below. A version of this one.  But featuring local stout aged on cacao nibs from the Taza chocolate factory in Somerville, Massachusetts.  Then more of the same chocolate is finely shaved with a knife and added in shards the Italians call stracciatella, meaning little tears or shreds.

Stracciatella is often made by pouring a thin stream of chocolate into cold, churning ice cream and served con panna, or with whipped cream, at your request.  And reminds me of the gelato I had in Rome over a decade ago.  So I borrowed on this memory, adding in some espresso for good measure.  The bitterness, balanced by dark beer and set upright by chocolate, somehow makes the final product even greater than its parts.

And I really can’t take credit for all of that.  The praise belongs mostly to the instruction of Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.  And to the fine people at Taza chocolate and Night Shift Brewing who did the heavy lifting, lending talent and honoring fine ingredients. 

But that’s the thing about cooking. The one in front of the stove gathers the spoils. You can use a blueprint belonging to someone else, selfishly add some favorite flavors, and a memory or two from your past, and suddenly you’re the genius.  The good humans who have lent part of themselves in the way of instruction, or cacao, or beer make it all possible though.

In many ways, this all makes very little sense.  And, yet, perhaps the best way to reconcile it is to pillage yet another idea. A witticism from a storyteller artist and fellow human.

There are things you do because they feel right and they may make no sense and they may make no money and it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other and to eat other’s cooking and say it was good.” –Brian Andreas

To share, and to care, and to eat chocolate may very well be the answer.  Merry Christmas.

Double Taza Stout and Stracciatella Espresso Ice Cream Con Panna


2 cups whole milk, divided
1½ tbsp cornstarch
1½ ounces cream cheese, softened
1¼ cup heavy cream
2/3 cup dark muscovado sugar
2 tbsp brown rice syrup
pinch of salt
2 tbsp instant espresso
80 grams (just shy of 3 ounces) dark chocolate (i.e. Taza), cut into small shards
½ cup chocolate stout (i.e. Night Shift Brewing Taza Stout)

Optional: ¾ cup heavy cream (for a whipped cream topping)


In a small bowl, mix 2 tbsp of the whole milk with the cornstarch.  In a separate medium bowl, whisk the cream cheese until smooth. 

In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining milk, heavy cream, sugar, brown rice syrup, and salt on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture boils.  When it reaches a slow rolling boil, continue to stir occasionally for 4 minutes more.

Remove pan from the heat and stir in the instant espresso until it dissolves.  Meanwhile, prepare a large bowl with ice and a little water and put a smaller bowl inside the larger bowl with ice.

Return the infused espresso milk back on medium-high heat; gradually add in the cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until it thickens (this will take a few minutes).  Remove from heat and slowly whisk some of the hot liquid into the cream cheese until smooth.  Add the cream cheese mixture to the saucepan with the remaining liquid; add stout; whisk to combine.

Pour into the prepared bowl on ice.  Let cool for about 30 minutes and then refrigerate until fully cooled (or overnight).

When ready, churn the mixture in an ice cream machine for 20 to 25 minutes, or until it gets thick and creamy and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  At the very end of the churning, add in the chocolate shards (we are technically cheating here, deviating from stracciatella form).  Pack the ice cream in an airtight container.  Cover with parchment paper cut to fit the container and freeze for at least 4 hours.

If desired, before serving whip ¾ cup heavy cream and top ice cream.

Makes about 1 quart.

-Chocolate covered cacao nibs would likely be great here too for added texture, but I'd encourage the chocolate shards regardless, they melt ably in the mouth.

-The brown rice syrup here is a stand-in for corn syrup, which can be used in a pinch. As can dark brown sugar in place of the muscovado.