Today, we are here.
Yesterday, we were elsewhere.
Me, I'm firmly planted somewhere in between. Maybe over South Dakota. Maybe Mars. My head and heart are in Seattle, still. My eyes and toes, entirely in Ohio. What a difference, twenty-four hours.
A friend traveled by train from the West Coast this summer. By train! Can you imagine? Two days it took, maybe three. She said she thought it helped with the time zones. I think she is right, about time zones and then some.
Modern jet travel is a marvelous thing, but there is a bit of the whiplash about it. Of the sleep cycle, for sure. But more, of the spirit. United might get the physical Me from Point A to B in eleven hours flat. The rest of Me is more on Amtrak time.
All day today, between the great unpacking and extreme school prepping and refrigerator scrubbing (because isn't that one of the best parts of being away? the returning home to an all-but-bare fridge?), I walked the house, seeing it all through new eyes. Oh, hello, you silly old tiled counters, you. There you are kitchen table, center of our universe. And you, dirty sink, you shouldn't have. Gadzooks! The garden! Sayonara, sink...
Doing that funny awkward sweet dance one does, when one's been away awhile.
Partly, it was all new, the outside of it, anyway. There is no pausing the August garden. "Look! It's like CHRISTMAS!!", Henry shouted this morning, after spotting the tomato plants, all a-bobble with fruit. He is prone to enthusiasm. He wasn't exaggerating. And it wasn't just the tomatoes.
We left buds. Returned to lush.
Partly, though, it was just the returning. To the apparently pent-up need to make: bread, painted acorns, spinning tops, jolly messes. To the water tray overflowing with glasses, from friends immediately, joyfully called over. To those gungy counters, piled with the day's gorgeous haul. To fantastic coffee beans, plucked from my stuffed suitcase, finally, properly, able to be ground. To the old typewriter, which never grows old. To the all-important familiar, in this still-new-to-us space, a little less-new with each passing return.
It was good to be there. It is good to be here. More on the there, soon as I find up.
Until then, raspberry oat bars, which are perhaps the most contrary August recipe ever posted. It's high summer, after all, the era of all things fresh. And I don't even, mea culpa, mean fresh raspberries, but raspberry jam and pantry oats and hot ovens. Bear with me.
I've been meaning to mention these since July and forever, and today seems fitting, since of all things, these things need new eyes. Because, I don't know about your jammy oat bar encounters, but mine have been almost uniformly so-so. Stodgy, stiff, sludgy, stale, sickly-sweet, the S-list goes on ... and rarely includes the word stellar.
Which is a shame, because stellar is exactly what any jammy oat bar ought to be. I mean, oats, butter, brown sugar, raspberry jam. Hello. How can the sum of said excellent parts ever not equal at least awfully good?
How most don't, I can't explain. How these do, I can't either. Nor can I take credit for the magic of this equation, all of which goes to the late, great Gourmet. I will suggest you don your new peepers post-haste, as these put all those old, bad bars to rest. Also, I might mention that since I first baked these, ten years back, they've become my Platonic jammy oat bar ideal. (Of course, Plato had a jammy oat bar archetype. Also, and I feel almost certain about this, had Plato shared one with Socrates, Mr. Method would've retracted his distrust of the senses on the spot. I'll allow this might be the jet lag speaking.)
There are many small things that make these bars work. A mix of sugars, brown and white. Plenty of butter, just barely rubbed in. More oats than flour, for texture and tooth. Coconut, in quantity, a quiet, clever way to build a dough that is rich, nutty and differently sweet. Extra salt, darker sugar, plus some tweaks in technique, these last few adjustments I've made over the years. I don't toast the coconut, nor set any aside for topping, both of which were laid out in the original. I know this sounds lazy. Probably, it is. But I've learned I like it better this way, the coconut toasting right in the buttered bars, the tender flakes entirely at one with the dough.
What you wind up with is a slender humble little bar, downright unimpressive, flat-out addictive. You get the whole caramelized salted-oat-butter-sugar thing, which is an established weakness for me. But the flour adds a flick of backbone, just enough to sustain a thin ribbon of raspberry. That thin ribbon concentrates in the slow oven into a tart-sweet intensity. And then, and this is the best bit, in my book, the same dough is scattered, crumble-style, over all. Loose and exposed to the dry heat, these tidbits go crunchy and crisp and enchanting.
Not quite as enchanting as August in Seattle, but that's hardly a fair comparison. Stacked against other oat bars? Enchanting as can be.
Raspberry Oat Bars
adapted from Gourmet, February, 2002
Bonne Maman is our go-to raspberry jam. You'll need much (though not all) of a jar for these bars. The original calls for a mixer, but as with crisps and crumbles, I find this simpler and more pleasing to make by hand, just a bowl and ten fingers. Feel free to flip a switch, if you wish.
1 1/2 cups sweetened, flaked coconut
1 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour (white, white whole wheat, or a combination)
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold salted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 - 1 cup raspberry jam
Place oven rack in middle position, and preheat to 375°. Have on hand a 9x13" pan, glass or metal. (If using metal, line with parchment strips, both directions.)
In a wide, shallow bowl, add coconut, flour, both sugars, salt and oats, and stir to combine. Add butter, and rub into dry ingredients with clean fingers, taking up handfuls and rubbing between your thumb and fingers to combine. Continue until you have nubbly clumps, with pea-sized bits of butter still visible, as with pie crust, 1-2 minutes.
Press 2/3 of dough into the baking pan, dropping in clumps, then pressing with fingers to distribute and flatten. Aim for roughly even; perfection unnecessary. Spread with the raspberry jam, using enough to coat the entire dough layer modestly. Crumble remaining dough over the jam, clumping and scattering as you would with a crisp.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, until bars are deeply golden on top. Baking pans affect the time greatly, here: a glass pan will take less time; a metal one, more. I like these as caramelized as I can get them, without burning the jam. Your nose knows. Cool completely in the pan, 1-2 hours, then remove entire cookie from pan. Cut into small bars, 1" square or so, so you can eat several without compunction.
Stored in an airtight container, these keep well for 3 days.