The "2 for $5" grocery store display of NutriGrain cereal bars caught my attention; the "no high fructose corn syrup" and "made with real fruit & whole grains" slowed my cart. By the time I got to the end of the actual ingredient list on the box's side panel, however, I caught myself making McKayla Maroney's meme-tastic scowl. I was not impressed.
The bars included artificial flavors, dyes, and 12 grams of sugars. They would survive six months in my pantry before expiring, but instead I put them back on the store's shelf, the familiar refrain of "you know, I bet I could make those" already running through my head.
And so I did make them, or rather a slightly larger, less oily, and significantly less sweet version of them. (I did eventually buy a box, for the sake of comparison.) I experimented with a few doughs, trying out a variety of grain combinations and both eggs and milk as a binder.
Milk seemed to result in a dough that was less like a cookie and more like a bread, and the flour/oat/wheat bran combo packed a rich flavor profile while also remaining soft and smooth enough to match commercial versions of the treat. It won't crumble before you get it in your mouth, though I also doubt that it will stand up to three weeks at the bottom of your purse in quite the same way as its individually packaged grocery-store counterpart.
When it came to finding a filling, commercial jams proved to be both too sweet for my taste and too thin to withstand the heat of baking without running all over the place. I tried a very thick homemade preserve that worked well, but back-stepping the process to include canning your own fruit seemed like a foodie joke taken too far. In the end, a cup of dried fruit simmered in water and then roughly puréed was the best solution, though a thick fruit spread, such as the fig preserves often sold at the cheese counter, was an acceptable second choice.
By using a food processor to do the mixing work, this recipe requires a time investment but is not especially labor intensive. There is a bit of the devil in the assembly details, and plenty of dishes created by the need to process the dough and the filling separately, but in the end the results definitely seem worth the invested effort.
Even at $2.50 a box for eight bars, I wouldn't buy the commercial version again. I would probably be willing to bake my own every few months, but I can't see them becoming a more regular homemade pantry staple.