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“…when you’re really lonely, the peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth.” – Charlie Brown.

In grade 6, our class put on – or, more accurately, was told – to put on a production of, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I think I was a made-up character named “Adam” and had maybe one 10-word line in the entire play. If I had really committed to my character and channelled being lonely (if I communicated so little, I probably was) then peanut butter would have definitely stuck to the roof of my mouth, via my method acting techniques.

In real life though, I haven’t paid too much attention to whether peanut butter sticks to the roof of my mouth – I don’t think it ever has, but honestly, I’d rather not dwell on it.

Fast forward some years after my short-lived acting career, and peanut butter sandwiches had indeed become a mainstay in my life. For a solid two years, I had peanut butter and banana sandwiches everyday for breakfast. Looking back on it now it makes me gag a little, not because the type of sandwich is disgusting to me, but because I can’t help but feel that relationship between art and life, and that indeed, I was deeply lonely.

Before this becomes a typical confessional blog post-turned-first draft for a Ted talk-turned-phoenix rising out of the ashes-scenario, I have to emphasize that even in periods of life when I’ve been deeply lonely, I have had beautiful, kind, and giving souls around me, whom I was grateful to call friends. For instance, during the PB-banana sandwich era, I had a wonderful housemate whose capability at doing life was astounding. She had an incredible talent for living fully which I deeply admired, and with a seemingly endless supply of energy, most of the words that came out of her were zesty proclamations that stirred me out of my sleepy fog. One of my strongest memories of our conversations together is how she once stated, and to which I fervently agreed, that if we ever dated people who were allergic to peanut butter, it would be a “deal breaker.” (For better or worse, my short lived dating life resembled that of my Adam character, and I never got to have that “So because you’re allergic…” conversation.)

During that same period of life, I met Mary. She was an eighty-something lady that lived in our neighbourhood. To make extra cash, my housemate and I had posted flyers around saying we were available to clean houses, help with yard work, and give flute (her) and piano (me) lessons (we were really laying it all out). Mary called us. Living alone in a large house (her husband had passed away years ago, and it didn’t seem like she had any children to call upon), she wanted help raking leaves and washing her walls with a vinegar-water concoction. Sometimes both my housemate and I would go help Mary, or sometimes we would go alone. This happened regularly for about two years, and even when I moved back to my hometown about an hour away, whenever I happened to be in the neighbourhood I would stop by for a visit.

Helping Mary with housework usually consisted of 1-2 hours of actual work, and then 1-2 hours of sitting with her and having tea and cookies. We would drink Red Rose out of her delicate bone china tea cups, and talk about the neighbours, her friends (who were up to no good, spending all their time at Tim Hortons), the status of the garden, how she used to save money from every pay cheque to buy another piece of crystalware from the set she had chosen (a goblet used to cost ten cents). How some lady stranger walking by had stopped to chat with her about how beautiful her white bell flowers were in the front yard, and the next day they were stolen right out of the soil, and that it must have been that woman. How last week when there was a thunderstorm she got so scared that she went into the basement and cried and desperately missed her husband.

I always think about Mary when I see white bell flowers, and when I make peanut butter cookies.

Most days, she had peanut butter cookies in the freezer. When we would sit down for tea, she would bring them out and even if they weren’t completely thawed, we would eat them anyway because they were so delicious, so delightful, so generous. They were always made with the classic fork tine imprint, and in a delicate lady-appropriate size, which also meant that you could have two, or maybe three, if you were discreet.

I haven’t seen Mary in ages, and we never had a proper good bye, and thus I haven’t really had the will to make peanut butter cookies, until recently, mostly due to stumbling upon a wonderful recipe. While these cookies aren’t quite like hers, they are delectable in their own right. I’ve opted for a double fork tine imprint to make a criss-cross pattern, and the cookies are a bit larger to serve this younger generation that doesn’t seem overly concerned with being dainty. I’ve added a hint of ginger, since my digestive system isn’t as efficient as it used to be. Hopefully Mary would approve.

Peanut butter cookies, with a hint of ginger
(adapted from a recipe in Tara O’Brady’s cookbook, Seven Spoons)

3/4 cup (200 g) smooth natural peanut butter
1/2 cup (115 g) butter, room temperature
2/3 cup (140 g) brown sugar
1/3 cup (70 g) white sugar
2 tbsp (44 g) molasses
1 egg
1 cup plus 2 tbsp (140 g) bread flour
1/2 tsp dried ginger powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Beat the peanut butter, butter, sugars, and molasses together until smooth and fluffy. Stir in the egg, and then sprinkle over all the dried ingredients. Beat until homogenous.

Roll into 2 tbsp balls, or alternatively, use an ice cream scooper to make perfectly consistent portions. Place on a lined baking sheet and freeze for 10-15 minutes, spaced 2″ apart. Use fork tines to make a criss cross pattern and to press the dough balls down. Dipping the fork into warm water occasionally can help it from getting too sticky. Bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven, for about 15 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the sheet before removing.

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It was getting out of control.

For the past few months, I had been voraciously eating granola, that I’d been buying at the grocery store.  Sacrilege.  But wait, it had a cute name! – it was called, “Love Crunch.”  But more importantly, it contained chocolate.  Oops!  Details.

The tipping point was when Longer Legs raised an eyebrow when I was serving myself the third bowl of the day, as an after-dinner snack.  It was time to crunch the love out.  And maybe think about doing ab crunches.

I don’t think that I am alone in periodically eating the same thing over and over – the comfort of having something unchanging to turn to is a strong grounding force in life, whether it be gustatory, or wearing the same pants everyday for a week (come on, you know you’ve done it at least once, like, maybe last week…).  Needless to say, I know I am lucky in many ways, including having the time and energy to wax self-indulgent lyrical about edible delights, but like anyone else, I have challenges too and I’m not always graceful in dealing with them.  Let’s face it: you can’t be happy all the time; it’s statistically impossible.

But, when the return to something familiar and comforting becomes a reflexive habit, it’s time to reassess.  And make your own granola.

After a brief episode of playing Adult and going to Costco, I had a pantry bursting with the necessary ingredients to make my own riff on the Love Crunch, and thus no excuse to buy pre-made granola again.  Creating a new recipe based on the retreat-worthy granola recipe, I wanted to make sure there was coconut and chocolate in this new-love, since those were the things that drew me to the Love Crunch in the first place.  But things feel more balanced when they are in sets of threes, no?  So I decided to layer on the riffing with the 3 C’s.  First, the 3 C’s of life are choices, chances, and changes.  So why couldn’t the 3 C’s of granola be coconut, chocolate, and…coffee?  It just seemed like the right thing to do.  And if this was to be my new grounding force, I felt that it should contain all the things I love – so that I could be better equipped to deal with all the choices, chances, and changes happening in life.

In the end, I decided to exercise some restraint and use cocoa powder instead of full-on chocolate, but read to the bottom of this post and you’ll see a note about that.  What’s nice is that the cocoa powder adds a lush dark brown colour to the granola, and a hint of bitterness that plays well with the maple syrup.  Also, maybe instant coffee seems like a cop-out but it feels like a waste to bake with real coffee, since the heat will drive all the subtle flavour notes away.  Better to have a cup of coffee made with freshly roasted, well-sourced beans served beside the granola, me thinks.

Side note: coconut oil is a real sexy foodstuff right now, as it contains medium-chain triglycerides, which have been shown to increase the fat-burning tendencies of the body.   Eat fat to burn fat?  That’s science for you.

Cocoa, coffee & coconut granola

makes 12 servings, ish

4-½ cups (400 g) rolled oats (certified gluten-free, if that’s a concern)
1-½ cups (165 g) mix of chopped almonds and walnuts
3 cups (378 g) mix of mostly pumpkin seeds and some hemp seeds
½ cup (98 g) coconut oil
½ cup (132 g) brown rice syrup
½ cup (140 g) maple syrup
2 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tbsp instant coffee powder
1-½ tsp flaky sea salt

Lightly pulse about 1/3 of the rolled oats in a blender to break down slightly. I find that the granola then gets interesting clumps due to the varying size of the oat particles.
Combine the oats, nuts and seeds in a large mixing bowl.
In a small saucepan, gently heat the coconut oil, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, cocoa powder, and instant coffee until the oil melts and the mixture is runny.  Stir to mix.
Pour the oil/syrup mixture over the oats and mix together.  Spread evenly over two large baking sheets. Bake at 325 F, for about 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.  Due to the inherently dark colour of this granola, it’s hard to tell when it’s roasted, so I err on the side of caution and turn the oven off at 20 minutes and let the granola continue drying out in the oven.  When it is cool, sprinkle in the sea salt and store in a large jar.

If you really want to get crazy (and by “crazy” I mean, “be amazing”), you could stir in some large coconut flakes and chocolate chips after the granola has cooled. Now you’ve just made a granola that’s perfect for dessert!  You could serve it over ice cream, or mascarpone cheese folded into whipped cream – oh my!  Or just eat it for breakfast with thick yoghurt.  Dessert for breakfast?  Yes please; that sounds like a great way to guarantee a good day.

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It has been an exceedingly warm winter this year.  Well, it has been warm for the past week.  Before that it was -40 degrees Celsius.  I have the memory bank of a meerkat, apparently.  More importantly, I have reason to participate in the futile art of complaining about the weather: I had really been enjoying the deep freeze, which I know can be hard to imagine by some, but there is something rather magical about it – at those temperatures, the air gets really clear and crisp; it’s blindingly sunny, and I get to walk on the frozen river that winds through our city and enjoy the pristine cleanliness of the crunchy snow underfoot.  Now that it has warmed up to a balmy 0 degrees Celsius, things have turned a sloppy brown-grey, and my winterized body finds this turn of events rather difficult to reconcile.  However do you mean, Old Man Winter, to be raining in January?  To wear a coat or not wear a coat?  Why am I only wearing one pair of pants?  Oh, such deep life questions.  With my blood thickened to withstand the temperatures preferred by polar bears, this warm muck feels completely oppressive.  Moreover, since there are still plenty of winter months left in the calendar, and it is bound to grow cold again, I feel caught between two worlds: one arm in my parka’s sleeve and the other bare, pale, exposed to the damp winter air, and somehow, not goosebumped.

So, with our apartment windows thrown open, it’s only natural that I start to cook like I live in Los Angeles.

Last spring I was lucky enough to visit LA for a few days.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts, as I spent most of my time taking yoga classes and meandering through Whole Foods.  I washed my innards in cold-pressed juices, paid homage to my intestinal microbiome with sautéed kale and brown rice that had been blessed with gratitude, and otherwise revelled in a kingdom of fresh, bright fruits and vegetables that promised everlasting happiness through puritanical gut euphoria.  Exceeding though my efforts were, alas, the crux: my soul had been stained with the darkness of skepticism for too long to really be washed clean.  Still, I like to pretend it’s possible sometimes.

So with this unseasonably warm winter weather, I decided to try making a quinoa pizza crust.  Being the ultimate triptych of gluten-free, vegan (well, at least it was supposed to be), and made with LOCAL quinoa (oh my), it was to be the ultimate remembrance of the previous’ spring journey.

Sweet joy!

Also, I happened to have all the ingredients (or most of them) at home.

Also, it turned out decently well, luckily – because I used the recipe from Raw: Recipes for a modern vegetarian lifestyle, by Solla Eiríksdóttir, who also lives in a mostly wintry place (Iceland) and somehow manages the positively miraculous achievement of eating a plant-based diet in a country known for its fermented shark.

The original recipe was vegan, and asked for vegan cheese and cream cheese.  As I am not vegan, and prefer to use things I have on hand instead of buying more, I used dairy cheese and goat cheese mixed with a little sour cream to replace the vegan options, respectively.  

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Zucchini goat cheese pizza with a quinoa crust
(adapted from Raw: Recipes for a modern vegetarian lifestyle, by Solla Eiríksdóttir)

makes 1 pizza

For the crust:
¾ cup (115 g) quinoa, uncooked
½ tsp sea salt flakes
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp black pepper
1 ½ tsp dried oregano
¼ cup (20 g) grated cheddar cheese
1 tbsp olive oil

For the topping:
½ cup goat cheese
¼ cup sour cream
½ zucchini, very thinly sliced
Hemp seeds (for sprinkling)
Olive oil (for drizzling)

Soak the quinoa overnight in water, covered.  The next day, drain the quinoa and blend it with ¼ cup water, salt, garlic, pepper, and oregano, until it is smooth.  Pour the batter into a bowl and stir in the cheese and oil.

Put a 9” tart ring on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and pour the batter into the ring.  Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for about 20 minutes, and then remove.  Wearing oven mitts, cover the crust with another baking sheet, and flip the baking sheets over with the crust between them.  It is a daring maneuver; I recommend that one be even-tempered and emotionally stable for this.  Bake on the second sheet for another 5-10 minutes.

Remove the crust from the oven and lower the temperature to 350°F.  Mix together the goat cheese and sour cream, and spread it over the crust.  Lay out the zucchini slices, and bake for another 10 minutes.  Right before serving, sprinkle over some hemp seeds and olive oil.  Slice and eat while wearing shorts.

This makes one pizza, but I think if you double the recipe you could forgo the tart ring situation and have enough batter to spread across an entire baking sheet to make a rectangular pizza crust.  

The next time I make this, I think I’d like to make a dessert pizza!  Imagine: remove the oregano and garlic from the crust, bake as usual, and then top it with whipped cream, berries, and chocolate shavings.  With this pizza base, you could have a whole meal of pizzas!  I don’t see how this can be wrong.

A few years ago during a road trip, a mouse got into our trunk and made a home for a few nights.  He slept in the instant oats, nibbled on the stump of a muffin, picked open a bag of corn chips but didn’t eat the chips themselves – and most interestingly, ate a whole Ziploc bag of popping corn kernels.  On one hand I was annoyed at the unwelcome intrusion, but on the other I had serious respect for the mouse’s choice of probably the healthiest, least processed food in the car.  No M&M’s, buddy?  (It appeared he licked but didn’t eat them).

Sometimes I don’t feel so different from our rodent companion, though I feel more squirrel-y than mouse-y, mostly because I can relate to a squirrel’s penchant for hiding food in places for later (we have a very well-stocked pantry).  And the bushy tail, I like the bushy tail.  But anyway, I feel like these almond millet chocolate bars pay homage to the four legged companions that flit in and out of our lives.  They are gluten-free, vegan, and made with recognizable things.  The chocolate topping is made with unsweetened chocolate so that the sweetness can be adjusted according to taste with the addition of icing sugar, making for a more wholesome, mouse-worthy snack.  Similarly, brown rice syrup has a relatively lower sweetness, so it can be exploited for its magical gooey powers of holding things together without going off the sweet charts – hence, these are the first snack bars I have ever made that didn’t crumble apart when I cut into them.  Less crumbs on the floor mean more crumbs in my tummy, which I feel is a good thing.

Almond millet chocolate bars

makes one 9×12″ pan

4 tbsp coconut oil
11 soft dates (if hard, soak in hot water for 10 minutes to rehydrate and plump)
250 g / 1 cup raw almonds
80 g / 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
50 g / 2 cups puffed millet
2/3 cup brown rice syrup

100 g unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp icing sugar

In a high-speed blender or food processor, blend the crap out of the coconut oil, softened dates and almonds.  Scrape down occasionally to make sure everything gets obliterated by the blades.  Scrape out this mixture into a large bowl and mix in the pumpkin seeds and puffed millet.  Meanwhile, gently heat the brown rice syrup in a small saucepan until it becomes looser in consistency and the edges just start to bubble.  Pour this over the mixture and fold together to evenly distribute the syrup.  Scrape everything into a 9×12″ baking pan lined with parchment paper, and press down evenly and firmly.  Chill the pan in the freezer while you make the topping: in a double boiler, gently melt the bittersweet chocolate.  When it is completely melted, stir in the icing sugar until it melts as well.  Pour the chocolate over the bar and smooth out with a spatula.  Freeze for at least 30 minutes before attempting to slice.  Only attempt to slice when you are feeling calm and collected, lest the bar crumbles under unabated emotions, in which case, add more brown syrup next time and all will be well.

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These were the second type of bars that I made for my yoga/Ayurveda workshop!  Woo!

I think I prefer these bars over the Winter Sun ones – I love their chewy, moist texture, and the deep flavour of the molasses balances well with the heat of the dried ginger.  These are based off of the Pumpkin Gingerbread Snack Bars from Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows blog (and check out her awesome cookbook here).  I didn’t bother adding her cashew butter maple glaze, though I’m sure it would be pretty delicious.  I also included the weight of each ingredient, because when I bake I prefer to weigh everything for nerdy precision.

Pumpkin ginger cranberry snack bars

makes 10-12 bars

1 cup / 216 g pumpkin puree
1/3 c / 112 g fancy molasses
1/2 c / 80 g white sugar
2 tbsp / 42 g coconut oil (melted and then left off the heat to cool slightly)
2 tsp / 8 g vanilla
1-1/2 c / 128 gluten-free rolled oats, pulsed in a processor/blender
3/4 c / 90 g gluten-free all-purpose flour (or I used coconut flour)
1 tsp / 6 g cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/3 c / 52 g dried cranberries

Mix together the pumpkin, molasses, sugar, coconut oil and vanilla.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix until uniform.  Scrape it all into an 8×8″ baking pan that has been lined with parchment paper.

pumpkin ginger cranberry snack bars

Now the fun part: smoosh the mixture into the pan evenly!  After smooshing, bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 20-25 minutes until the top looks dry.  Let the bars cool completely before removing them from the pan, otherwise they might crack.  It is handy to line the pan so that there is parchment paper hanging over the sides, so when it is time to gorge you can conveniently lift the paper up with the bars on it.  A pizza cutter is also handy here for speedy cutting, thereby expediting the gorging process.

pumpkin ginger cranberry snack bars

Virginia Woolf famously said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” – so I felt it was very important to make some delicious granola bars for the students that came to my yoga/Ayurveda workshop this wintry weekend.  We started with a gentle yoga class, took a break for snacks and tea, and I led a talk on how Ayurveda can help bring balance to our bodies and minds.  Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga, and is a healing therapy that focuses on the interrelatedness of the body, mind and spirit.  Food is a wonderful healer and a beautiful way to connect to the people and things around us; if our tummies can be satisfied, our hearts and our minds aren’t far behind.

While there are endless variations and replacements to be made in a granola bar recipe, the following choices were settled upon due to Ayurvedic principles that suggest we eat according to the seasons.  This particular recipe uses sunflower seeds and sunflower butter, which were obvious choices due to their very punny attributes (sun!).  Moreover, sunflower seeds are very nourishing and good for all the Doshas (body types according to Ayurveda).  Black sesame seeds were included as they contain high amounts of solar energy (which we could all use more of during short winter days), and like sunflower seeds, are very rejuvenating.  Millet and amaranth are gluten-free ancient grains that are high in protein and fibre, and along with oats, they are calming and strengthening foods that can soothe the winter blues away.  Both raisins and cinnamon improve digestion, and cinnamon helps to warm the body – a very welcome attribute in winter. Brown rice syrup and maple syrup have relatively low glycemic indexes (meaning they do not cause huge spikes in blood sugar levels compared to other sweeteners), and more importantly, having a little sweetness in your diet will make you a little sweeter (wink!).

Winter sun granola bars

makes 12 bars

1-1/2 cups rolled oats (certified gluten-free if necessary)
1-1/4 cups millet puffs
1/2 cup sunflower seeds, unroasted, unsalted
1/8 cup black sesame seeds
1 tbsp amaranth seeds
1/4 cup raisins
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup sunflower seed butter

In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. Meanwhile, in a small pot, gently heat the syrups and seed butter, stirring with a spatula. When it has warmed and loosened up, pour it over the dry ingredients and mix well to combine. The mixture will be very sticky. Scrape it all into a 9×12″ baking pan that has been lined with parchment paper. Spread it out evenly and with slightly wet fingers or a rolling pin, smoosh the mixture down so it is well packed (this will help it stick together). Bake in a preheated 300 F oven for 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Let it cool completely before cutting. There is also the option to not bake the bars and stick the mixture into the freezer to firm up! A short visit of 10 minutes in the freezer should do, and then the bars can be cut. I prefer the toasty flavour of the baked version, and cooked foods are more appropriate for this time of year – plus, turning the oven on in the winter makes the house warm and cozy, which is an added bonus.

winter sun granola bars

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