I have a brother, five years my senior, and I remember his teen meals well. The Himalayan mashed potatoes. The buckets of cold cereal and milk. The Quarter Pounders, ordered in multiples, eaten in maybe three bites. The Tuesday all-you-can eat nights at Skipper's, where our dinners regularly ran to two hours, and refills regularly ran to fifths, sixths. That location is no longer in business. I've often wondered if we weren't to blame. And all this, and oh so much more, just to support one looooong, lanky frame, with something like .5% body fat.
Also, I have a boy, a very hungry boy, of my own who I've known would one day eat volumes. At four, he asked for and ate the Thanksgiving drumstick. Off our twenty pound turkey. At five, I watched him inhale an entire Chipotle burrito. Then ask for another. (Me, I can only ever eat half. I gave him my other half. He ate that, too.) At six, he'd eat four bowls of potato soup, each topped with a small heap of smoked mackerel, plus stacks of bread for dunking. For an after-school snack. At seven, breakfast routinely entailed two jumbo fried eggs, two slabs of buttered toast, and an apple or three to wash it down. At eight, I hired a financial planner to structure investments for the next ten years' feeding.
Kidding. So far. But, I knew.
I just didn't know it would happen so soon.
See, my hungry boy is my middle child, who at eight still has a few (knock-on-wood) years before famished. And my eldest, who turned thirteen this past August, has never much been one for food. I mean, he eats, and certain things, he loves, and if you're ordering pizza, you'd do well to order a large pepperoni, just for him. With half a dozen warm chocolate chip cookies to follow.
It's just that he's always been equally likely to skip dinner entirely, if it doesn't suit. It often doesn't suit. Many a night, he's nibbled a few carrots and moved onto homework, no big deal.
Time was. Times have changed.
Because recently, in addition to growing five inches, he has grown, for the first time, an appetite. A genuine appetite. Needy, voracious. Bordering not infrequently on desperate. (I'm saving bottomless for Number Two.)
To wit: A few weeks back, we had bagels and apples for breakfast. He ate his usual half with cream cheese, plus a small mound of sliced fruit. Then another half. Then another. Then looked up, a little wild-eyed, and around. I am so hungry. I handed him a banana. Gone. Again: I'm SO hungry. We raided the fridge, turned up two (plate-sized) crêpes, one-two, gone. And again: I'm sooo HUNGRY. Another banana. At which point, I thought I'd over-solved the problem. He: Ohhhh, my stomach hurts... Me: Maybe you, um, ate too much? He: Noooo, I'm SO HUNGRY.....
This was no isolated incident. Milk used to sit in our fridge until it soured. Now, I buy two cartons each week. I spend more on apples than clothes each month. I never leave the store without more bananas. I go to the store every few days. Time to buy stock in Chiquita. In second grade, I made it to States in the Spelling Bee, only to flame out on "naive". At the time, I felt foolish for adding a second "i". Now, I know I was just foreshadowing.
So maybe I was caught a little off guard. A few famished weeks, and I got religion. Increased pancake yields. Stocked twice the fruit. Escalated my search for quick, portable snacks. It was a mission, many years in the making (and little did I know how urgent it would become), but I'm pleased to report it's now accomplished. Meet my co-defender against fierce teenage hunger: the peanut butter chocolate chip granola bar.
(By the way, if you're tempted to read into all these golden leaves some metaphor about seasons of life, don't. It's just me, gawking. But that yardage? Well. I spent last week making new longer p.j.'s and pants for my new longer peeps, though only after washi-taping an extra 4" of tissue to each pattern's cuffs. While at it, I made a wee pair of pants for an expectant friend. They were cut from half a yard, with half of that left over. They came together in maybe thirty minutes. It felt more like making a crêpe than a pair of pants. Way more poignant than any old tree, if you ask me.)
Sounds straightforward enough, and it is, but glory, the trail of mediocre bars we've left behind. I've lost count of all we've tried and rejected; let's just say legion. Some were awful. Some were so-so. Many were close, almost swell, but failed some tiny, crucial test. Too sweet, too plain, too fruity, too dry, too damp, too soft, too dull, too crumbly, too fleeting, too well-intentioned, too too. I was ready to boycott all bars. And evict my inner Goldilocks.
And then, last October, we received Standard Baking Co. Pastries and bingo, there was our bar. (Mind, when I say bingo, it invariably means I've deleted three things and added two others and altered quantities and adjusted baking times. I can't help myself. Also, my kids don't do dried fruit in stuff.) The thing is, my small tweaks aside, the bones of this bar are all Standard, and are spot-on brilliant, and are what makes this bar, for us anyway, The Bar. And none too soon.
These were everything I wanted in a bar, plus a few things I hadn't dared wish after. They are loaded with oats, the old-fashioned kind, the sort that go chewy or crisp, depending. Wheat germ and sesame play small supporting rolls, one toasty, one nutty, both sweetly background. In place of all sorts of dried fruit and seeds, I fold in nearly three cups of chopped walnuts, which would never, and I mean ever, get by in a cookie, but somehow here aren't an issue.
All this toasty-oaty-crunchy rubble is bound by butter, brown sugar, more sugar, and peanut butter, the better part of a jar. Also, two fantastic tablespoons of vanilla, plus one smart tablespoon of salt. Goodbye, dull. Hello, flavor. Actually, hello all granola bar goodness.
The net effect is a bar that is deeply, roundly flavored, with structural integrity and excellent longevity and, key, an enduring fan base. On the granola bar gamut, these fall I suppose toward the chewy end, though not woefully so. They crisp at the edges in the baking, and are shot through with enough nuts for necessary crunch. The peanut butter is pronounced, a toasty nutty baritone, ripped with vanilla, sparkly with salt, and ever as always at home with chocolate.
Did I mention the chocolate? One bag of mini chips, which make an appearance in each and every bite. Crucial, this, as chocolate is one of the four food groups in our house, and a winning feature here. Winning, in this case, meaning this bar's become the mortar that helps us hold days together, buys us an hour, keeps the wolves where they belong.
They're what gets grabbed on the way out the door, when two quesadillas didn't do it for breakfast. They're snack after school, a phenomenon I'd recently (and wrongly) believed a preschool-era artifact. They're duct tape and baling wire for brain cells and leg bones expanding at speeds probably beyond the legal limit. They're tough enough to survive a lunch box, gracious enough to keep beautifully for weeks, and swoony enough that I eat them for dessert, even as I hand them out before dinner.
One final word about that. Even I'm not naive enough to imagine a few eyebrows won't rise over what follows. Yes, these bars call for a full three cups' sugar, plus another one of butter. Yes, there are granola bars out there with less sugar and more dates and apple sauce and shiny halos and hallelujah if your kids eat them. Mine won't. Nor have I had much luck modifying these. Cut back the sugar and the bars crumble, thus failing the crucial grab-and-go test. These are then, for us, the happy medium.
And honestly, I stand behind that happy, because for me and mine I am okay with a daily dose of reasonably-sweet. After all, they're mostly consumed by a boy who still lets me pack peas and apple sauce for lunch. Who's never even asked after a soda. Who'll happily down two smoothies with dinner. Who's ever-present accompaniment to said bars is a banana and a tall cold one. I'm down with that.
Besides, there are also those eight cups of oats, that pile of peanut butter, those cups of good nuts. This makes a whopping half-sheet pan, for something like 56 bars. That's less than three teaspoons of sugar per bar. Not that I'm naive enough to think that one bar's the average teenage serving size, but hey, that's another story.
adapted from Standard Baking Co. Pastries, by Alison Pray and Tara Smith
Yield: roughly 56 1.5" x 2.5" bars
A few ingredient notes: The original recipe calls for corn syrup. I've used corn, as well as brown rice and barley malt syrup, all to good effect. I suspect honey would work, also. We use an equal weight of walnuts in place of the original mix of sunflower and pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries. Feel free to swap in what pleases. I've fiddled with these bars endlessly, and have found most any substitutions work, so long as the following ratio is adhered to: 3 cups sugars (liquid + solid) : 9 cups grains (oats + germ/seeds) : 4 cups "chunks" (walnuts + chips) is a good balance, for a sturdy final bar.
Please note that the melted butter needs 30 minutes to cool, before mixing bars.
1 cup salted butter
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups crunchy, salted peanut butter
1 cup light corn syrup or brown rice syrup
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 1/2 cups toasted, chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup sesame seeds
one 12-ounce package mini chocolate chips
Melt butter. Place melted butter in a medium bowl, and add brown sugar, peanut butter, corn syrup and vanilla. Mix well to combine, and set aside to cool, 30-60 minutes. (Butter mixture must be cool to the touch, so as not to melt the chocolate chips.)
Preheat oven to 375°. Line a rimmed 13 x 18" baking sheet (half sheet pan, a.k.a. jelly roll pan) with parchment paper, then spray or butter exposed sides.
In a very large bowl, combine oats, chopped walnuts, salt, wheat germ, sesame seeds and mini chocolate chips. Add the cooled butter-sugar mixture to the oat mixture, and stir well to thoroughly combine. I usually begin with a long wooden spoon, then switch to clean hands, halfway through. All in all, I give this a good 2-3 minutes of mixing, the last minute or two being a hands-on squish-smoosh. A fantastic job for tactile (clean) children. You want every oat coated, for a successful finished bar.
Spread mixture into prepared baking sheet, and press down to evenly distribute. Cover mixture with a second sheet of parchment (or waxed paper), and press firmly to compact and level. A rolling pin makes quick, efficient work of this. The underside of a measuring cup will also do the job. Either way, compact your mixture well here, and you will have a bar which will withstand the rigors of a lunchbox.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the edges are light golden brown. The mixture will be fall-apart tender when first finished. This never stops us from scoop/cutting several helpings when warm. But do wait for the bars to cool fully, 4 hours or overnight, before slicing the entire batch for storage.
Bars keep beautifully, stored airtight at room temperature, for 3 weeks or more.