The Paupered Chef: Breakfast Bars
Photographs by The Paupered Chef
We’ve been proudly skipping the most important meal of the day, on a regular basis, for as long as we can remember. Cold cereal isn’t enough to coax anybody out of bed. Oatmeal takes too much time, and instant oatmeal isn’t worth it. Eggs, bacon, pancakesthose weekend brunch staples that invite us to sit down and linger over themjust aren’t practical on most Wednesday mornings. Why not sleep the extra 20 minutes?
Those who do eat breakfast have turned increasingly to the fast-food breakfast sandwich, the granola bar, the doughnut. Some of these options are better than others, but one important quality ties them together: We tend to put our breakfast production into the hands of others.
While many people pack their own lunches or cook their own dinners regularly, those same people submit breakfast to the unnameable gods of General Mills or to McDonald’s employees. But that quickly becomes expensivecereal from the store, even, is among most lucrative products a company can sell, the prototypical processed food. Four cents of grain is sent through a mysterious process and comes out as a $4 box of sugary kid-happiness. Any economist can see that close to 1,000 percent markup is a pretty good business model.
We’re not here to derail that machinewe actually have quite fond memories of breakfast cereals in our PJ’sbut we're always looking for ways to save money, and that usually means making things at home. Our frugality left us wondering: Could these cartoon-endorsed breakfast cereals be created by mere mortals, and not just Tucan Sam, Count Chocula, or Snap, Crackle, and Pop? So on a random Sunday morning, we woke up, put on our shoes, and walked to the neighborhood market. A large box of Fruity Pebbles set us back a cool $4.50. We took it home and started to figure out what, exactly, it was made of.
The main ingredient is a little reassuring: rice. It is cooked at extreme temperatures and pressure until it puffs, after which it is squashed into shapes. From there, things go downhill quickly. The box may bill its contents as full of fruity flavor, but the second ingredient listed is sugar (ingredients appear on the label in order of quantity used, in descending order). Then comes polydextrose, a low-calorie synthetic sweetener. Next is hydrogenated vegetable oil, salt, and a list of color additives to conjure up the hues of fresh fruit.
So where to start? We spent hours online searching for a recipe for puffed rice and consulted every cookbook in our collection. Unlike popcorn, which pops easily with heat, rice has no hard exterior shell to hold moisture inside. So the only way to "pop" rice is to heat it under extreme, steam-injected temperatures, twice as hot as a pressure cooker at home.
Much like chicken nuggets, commercial cereal is a popular food that has no precedent in the family home. We made a valiant, if futile, attempt at puffing rice by deep-frying it (above right). The grains did popbut not into an airy, crisp treat. They tasted like the scraps at the bottom of the popcorn bowl. Not an enticing way to start your day. The bottom line is, you can’t puff your rice at home. (After exhausting that search, we thought briefly of Indian murmura, a traditional puffed rice creation that is roasted in hot sand.)
The next-best thing we could think of was breakfast bars made from the bulk bins at the local grocery store. Riffing on a recipe from Serious Eats favorite Alton Brown, we concocted some pretty tasty bars from wheat germ, rolled oats, and dried fruit. Our bars took about five minutes of active time and cost a total of $2.08. We were pretty happy with the way they turned out and look forward to road-testing them over the next few mornings.
We’re really curious what other Serious Eaters do for breakfast, for those of you who do in fact eat it regularly, or at least periodically. Share your recipes!
2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
1 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup shaved coconut
2 tablespoons flax seeds
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 ounce unsalted butter, more to grease pan
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
6 1/2 ounces chopped dried fruit (we used dried cranberries, black currants, and chopped apricots)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish, and set aside. Spread the first 6 ingredients on a baking sheet, and toast in oven, stirring 3 to 4 times, until just barely browned, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. A few minutes before toasting is complete, place the honey, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat (you’ll need enough room to add the dry ingredients later), and heat, stirring, until butter is melted and sugar is completely dissolved. Reduce heat to low, and add the toasted dry ingredients, plus the fruit, tossing until everything is well-coated.
3. Reduce oven heat to 300 degrees. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish, pushing everything down until well-packed. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Remove, allow to cool completely, then cut into squares with a sharp knife. Make sure you cut all the way through so the bars don’t crumble when you try to remove them.