bircher muesli

When it comes to food, I probably have fewer “mainstays” than most people. Sure, I have my favorites, but you’re more likely to find me whipping up a one-time-only creation from the scraps in my refrigerator than making “Monday night meatloaf” or some such weekly regular.

I’ve always wanted to be that person. Known for a dish. Talked about in social circles. (“You’ve simply got to try Jen’s famous butternut squash lasagne…”) But I’m not, and I’ve come to terms with that. You’ll rarely find me making anything twice, let alone committing it to memory.

Except for a few special standouts, which brings me to this post. Meet my new obsession: Bircher muesli. Straight outta Switzerland, my new breakfast staple came to me by way of the chic city of Melbourne Australia, where I got to travel for work last month to sit in cafes and wax poetic about soaked oatmeal. Sort of.

Before Melbourne, I was only vaguely aware of this strange mixture that, to my uneducated palate, was basically just un-crunchified granola. We did eat a chocolate chunk enhanced version of it by the handfuls when I was living and working in West Africa but it quickly faded from my memory. I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I saw it again in health food stores, packaged up in cute little bags. I’d read somewhere that you should soak it in juice (really? cereal and juice?), but passed it off as an odd old-world habit.

Foolish, foolish me.

After trying it again in Australia, where it’s offered on every breakfast menu from upscale bistro to underground cafe, I was hooked. The texture ranged from soft and gooey to pasty, stick-to-your-ribs hefty. Toppings included everything from stewed fruit and actual granola (above) to banana and macadamia nuts. The possibilities were endless. One thing it was not? “Just cold oatmeal.” Nope. This stuff is in a class by itself. So much so that granola goes by another name: “Toasted muesli.” I found that funny for some reason.

Muesli was introduced around 1900 by the Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital. I figure if it was good enough for a doc, it’s good enough for this breakfast-loving triathlete who needs a nutritious start to her day. And it’s quickly making a move on coffee as the number one thing to look forward to during a 6 a.m. swim. (Watch out coffee, your post is under siege!) I’ve surprised myself by how many consecutive mornings I’ve been able to eat this stuff. And enjoyed it. A lot.

But of course, as you can see above, my two loves get along swimmingly.

Preparing Bircher muesli is as easy as toasting bread or pouring cereal, if not easier. Let me introduce you…

Step 1: Procure some raw muesli. Above is my current favorite, the bulk Hot European Cereal from Sprouts’ market. I love it because it’s all ready to go, includes dates and raisins that get all poofed up when you soak them, as well as almonds and sunflower seeds for extra good fats. (Plus, it serves as my new favorite base for homemade granola. Just toss it with the wet mixture, bake, and voila!) Bob’s Red Mill makes a pre-packaged version, or you can make your own at your favorite local bulk foods store. In a pinch, plain, old-fashioned oats will work just fine too.

Step 2: Soak the mixture in half the amount of liquid. Here, I used 2 cups of muesli, and a total of one cup apple juice and milk. I’m still experimenting with the best combinations, and have some other juices on hand to try soon (peach, pineapple, and cran-apple).

Step 3: See how easy this is? You don’t even have to stir. Just put a lid on it and shake shake shake! Then pop it in the fridge overnight.

Step 4: The next morning, it will look something like this. Take out what you want (I usually make about 2 days’ worth at a time), and mix in however much plain yogurt you need to achieve your desired consistency. This is an essential step, and you must mix heartily. I usually put only about a quarter-cup of the regular (not Greek) lowfat plain yogurt in mine. If you do use Greek, add some milk so that it doesn’t become too pasty. Some recipes call for grated apple to be added here too, but I usually skip that step in the interest of time.

Step 5: Top with your favorite toppings. I make a big jar of toasted coconut, dried cranberries, pepitas, flaxseeds, and almonds and keep it around for a quick topping. But get creative! That’s what this stuff is for.

And for those of you who need a more traditional recipe, here you go:

Bircher Muesli

Ingredients

Base:

2 cups bulk dry muesli (ie: Sprouts’ bulk Hot European Cereal mixture) or old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup liquid (try low-fat milk, natural apple juice, or a mixture of the two to discover your perfect creamy/sweet ratio)

½ cup low-fat plain yogurt, Greek or regular style

½ an apple, grated (optional)

Toppings:

coconut flakes, slivered almonds, and/or hazelnuts, toasted

raisins and/or dried cranberries

stewed or fresh fruit

apple butter or maple syrup for extra sweetness

granola (what the Aussie’s call “toasted muesli”)

pluma moos (fruit compote)

Preparation

  1. Mix the dry muesli mix (or rolled oats) with the cup of liquid (milk, juice, or a combination of both) and let sit overnight in the fridge.
  2. In the morning, stir in the yogurt until well mixed. (Plain yogurt will give the finished product a more moist texture, whereas Greek will yield a “drier” effect.) Many recipes call for the addition of grated apple. Try it if you have time; it’s by no means essential.
  3. Top with your favorite toppings and enjoy!
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sarah’s rice pilaf

I’ve been a little slow on the blogging draw as of late. But rather than bore you with the details of why, here’s one of those dusty old drafts I never got around to posting. Maybe because the photography wasn’t as good as I’d hoped—the actual printed recipe yields a much better-looking dish than what’s pictured here, which was my “I don’t have everything” adaptation! Whatever the case may be, this is a hearty, chewy rice pilaf will make you feel like curling up at a big wooden harvest table with a bunch of good friends. Which reminds me…

How much I miss my Syracuse supper club people. We weren’t a formal club, just a group of couples who loved to eat. I think I only attended three or four of the actual events before I moved off to D.C., but being still relative newcomers to our new town, I miss eating regularly with others. This dish was one of the first, served at a cozy home in Tipperary Hill, Syracuse, but the lovely and fleet-footed Sarah. We ate buttery, garlicky mussels, and then this pilaf stuffed into individual mini pumpkins. Sarah introduced me to trail running and French wine, and to that I owe her the world.

Or at least, dinner. Hopefully in the next few months I’ll be able to return the favor.

last image courtesy of Huro Kitty/Flickr Creative Commons

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Healthy Winter Granola

Many of you loyal readers of this blog already enjoy granola à la Jen; that simple, throw-together-whatever-you’ve-got bowl of nuts, seeds, and grains that turns mornings into moments. I call it Chameleon Granola, and it always surprises me with its various incarnations.

For those of you who feel a little lost in an ingredient list that read “this, OR this,” I’ve put together this foolproof, easy to follow recipe. Just the straight-up stuff with none of the playing around and experimentation. (Actually, truth be told, I put it together for the magazine I work for, where it’s featured in the December-January issue under off-season nutrition.)

So try this one, and next time, maybe you’ll be ready to play Picasso with your breakfast cereal.

Healthy Winter Granola*

Ingredients

Dry:
-4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
– ½ cup wheatgerm
-½ cup flaxmeal (ground flaxseeds)
-½ cup pumpkin seeds
-½ cup unsweetened coconut (if you don’t like coconut, use 1 cup pumpkin seeds)
-2 Tbsp chia seeds
-1 tsp salt
-1 tsp cinnamon, nutmeg, or ground ginger

Wet:
-¼ cup molasses
-¼ cup pure maple syrup
-¼ cup agave syrup
-¼ cup smooth peanut butter
-2 egg whites
-splash of water or milk

Preparation

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix together the oats, wheatgerm, flaxmeal, pumpkin seeds, and coconut, and spread over two large cookie sheets. Toast for 10 minutes, or until lightly fragrant. Remove, turn oven down to 325 degrees.

2. Pour toasted mixture into a large bowl and add chia seeds, salt, and spices.

3. Mix together the molasses, maple and agave syrups, and peanut butter, microwaving on low power for a few minutes if softening is needed. Stir into the dry mixture until well-coated. Pour in the egg whites and water. Stir to incorporate.

4. Gently oil the baking sheets (unless you’re using non-stick) and disperse mixture evenly over the two sheets. Bake for 20 minutes, remove and stir gently with a flat lifter (especially if you want clumps, don’t disturb the granola too much), and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want the final product. (Less time equals a softer, more chewy texture, more time equals more crunch). Place baking sheets on racks and cool.

*Originally published in LAVA Magazine, Issue 3, December/January (2010, 2011)

oatmeal bars

Things are pretty dismal in the freshcrackedpepper kitchen these days. I’m down to kimchi, eggs, and staples—each of them honorable in their own right, but difficult things to build a meal on. I’ve been content to scavenge and snack, though, using up frozen soups and reverting to the bought pasta sauce in the back of my cupboard.

Breakfast, on the other hand, is one meal that’s never complicated. It’s always simple and comforting, day in and day out. But I have noticed a change. I used to be the kind of person who chose something different from morning to morning: A bagel one day. Muesli the next. Eggs on the weekend. But since becoming a nine-to-fiver, breakfast is one of the many areas my food habits have shifted.

One word: oatmeal. Yup, oatmeal, plain and simple. Maybe it’s peer pressure—there’s a little “oatmeal club” developing at my office, where us health-savvy young female journalists line up by the hot water tap with our bowls of instant cereal. (Are women more susceptible to marketing? McDonald’s Oatmeal and Fruit, Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal, those cutesy Quaker Oatmeal ads that are everywhere?)

Whatever the case may be, it’s fun to stir our oats and chat before the work day starts. But last week a terrible thing happened: My supply of instant multigrain oats that I get smuggled to me from Canada ran out. I had it down to a science: Skim milk + microwave (none of this hot water tap business for me!) + stir + more microwaving + tiny pat of peanut butter + more stirring = the best bowl of creamy, unsweetened oats you could ever ask for.

Well, just buy more, you say. But I don’t know what brands I like down here (whine) and plus, I welcome the DIY challenge. I used to simmer my own steel cut oats all the time when I had just that: time. So, inspired by a co-worker’s frozen pucks of Trader Joe’s steel cut oats, I whipped up a batch, sprinkled in some pumpkin seeds and craisins, spread it into a baking pan, chilled it, and then cut it into bars I could freeze for future mornings.

My own convenience oatmeal. Take that TJ’s. (Plus, I just had a lot of fun playing with depth-of-focus on such bland, beige subject matter.)

So for now, breakfast is helping assuage the guilt of my almost Miranda Hobbes-esque urban existence. (Chinese take-out is still a long way off.) Beyond oatmeal club, however, new tastes abound: a five-course dinner prepared by a friend’s darling husband (“Chef Trev”), blueberry soup at the Swedish embassy after Sunday morning’s 65 mile bike ride (followed by delicious four-dollar falafal), and celebratory amuse-bouche at an event held at the home of the Spanish ambassador.

Things haven’t been too bad, now that I think of it. (Said as awesome housemate delivers me a bowl of stove-top popcorn). But the time has come to hit the grocery store once again. And as this blog will stand witness to, it shouldn’t be that bad after all.

Muffin Mondays: Kristen’s Raisin Bran Muffins

For this Christmas week, I’m grateful to have a post from my friend Kristen, of Birthing Beautiful Ideas. On her blog, you’ll find spirited musings about breastfeeding, feminism and philosophy. Her blog is foodie-friendly, too: Kristen loves eating, sharing, and the occasional tryst with an elusive, erotic lobster tail.
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When my husband, Tim, and I were expecting our first child, we lived far away from our respective families.  We were a day’s travel from their warm and inviting homes, from impromptu morning coffees and family dinners and holiday celebrations, and (in the forefront of our minds as our son’s birth approached) from the very people whose parenting we hoped to emulate.

Wanting to have our family a bit closer as we began a family of our own, we invited both of our mothers to stay with us for the first two weeks following the birth of our son:

Tim’s mom, the night owl, to help us on what we anticipated would be many sleepless nights of newborn care.

And my mother, the inimitable cook, to help us ensure that we didn’t collapse into a life of take-out meals and boxed food and cold cereal as we adjusted to parenthood.

Thanks to her, we dined on crab cakes and roasted chicken and gargantuan green salads and cheeses and fresh fruit and chocolate cake in the days after our baby was born.  She would bring our meals to our bedroom if I was nursing our son.  She would set a magnificent dining room table that made me forget that I was still in my pajamas at six in the evening.

And each morning, she would fill a tray with coffee, tea, juice, and two scrumptious muffins and set it outside our bedroom door.

These muffins were her “famous” raisin bran muffins.  Warm, slightly crunchy, cinnamonly mild, and chock full of tangy cranberries in those first wintry days of our son’s infancy.

The first two weeks of my son’s life passed with tender moments and insomnia and many delicious meals, and it was soon time for my mother to return to her own home.  (But not before she stocked our freezer with over a dozen meals!)

Before she left, she made sure to whisper in my ear that “the muffin batter makes nearly five to six dozen muffins, so there should be enough batter in the fridge for you and Tim to have muffins for at least the next three or four weeks.”

During those next few weeks, after many sleepless nights, on the days when Tim and I could barely muster up enough energy to pour milk over our cold cereal, it didn’t take that much more effort to scoop some batter into our muffin tray and bake a couple of delicious additions to our morning meal.

And it made Mom feel not so far away after all.

Kristen of Birthing Beautiful Ideas.com

Raisin Bran Muffins

Makes 5 to 6 dozen

4 eggs

1 qt. buttermilk

1 cup oil

5 cups flour

2 1/2 cups sugar

5 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 (15 oz.) box Raisin Bran cereal

2 T cinnamon

1 1/2 cups coconut

1 cup chopped pecans

1-2 cups seasonal berries or fruit (e.g. blueberries in summer, cranberries in winter, etc.)

  1. Mix together eggs, buttermilk, and oil until well-blended. Add flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.  Mix well.
  2. Stir in salt, cereal, cinnamon, coconut, and pecans. Refrigerate mix for 24 hours in an airtight container.  (Batter may be stored in refrigerator up to six weeks.)
  3. Preheat oven to 400 F. Line muffin tin with paper muffin cups. Fill cups 2/3 full with batter. Add desired berries (blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, etc.) to each individual muffin, making sure to push some of the berries into the batter.
  4. Sprinkle muffin tops with sugar and cinnamon before baking. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Muffin Mondays: Meghan’s Sweet Potato Bran Muffins

For this week’s Muffin Monday, I’m happy to introduce someone very special to me. Meet my cousin, friend, and fellow wordsmith, Meghan J. Ward, of Banff, Alberta. Megan is a freelancer writer on health and wellness, mountain culture, and outdoor sports.  She writes and reflects over at The Campsite and brings her spirited observations today to the topic of food.

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I have always been a “dive in head first” kind of person. I rarely read directions and choose instead to figure things out as I go along. However, two things have made me think I might want to do otherwise: Baking and IKEA. After recently moving and putting together an army of IKEA furniture, I learned the hard way that taking apart a chest of drawers with that Star Trek looking wrench is much harder than doing it right the first time using the instructions. My baking exploits in the past have been slightly disastrous too, so today I challenged myself for this muffin post to actually follow a recipe.

This meant delving into the unknown corners of my grocery store here in Banff. Living in a National Park, I wondered if certain ingredients simply would not be available. I also wondered if I’d spend more than my university tuition buying the ingredients for my muffins at the ridiculously inflated prices of this tourist town.

I did.

I chose to use a muffin recipe from Eat, Shrink & Be Merry!by the Podleski sisters. Janet and Greta brought me through my university years and they could do it again. The recipe I chose, wittily titled A Bran New World, aptly described my venture into the unknowns of muffin making.

Soon after getting home with my loot of food, I realized this baking thing would still be improvised no matter how much I wanted to follow the directions. I didn’t have a mixing bowl big enough, and had to settle for using Tupperware and a giant wok instead. The sweet potato I had purchased was soft and mushy on one side, so I performed emergency surgery on it. I nearly blinded myself making orange zest. I had forgotten to buy allspice. I didn’t own a whisk or an apron. Turns out I really was just a wanna-be Muffin Maker.

I did some things just like the pros. I spilled muffin mix on my recipe book, which gave it the “well-used and well-loved” look even Martha Stewart would be proud of. I also remembered to preheat my oven (this is a big step for me!) OK, that’s about all that I did so professionally, but in the end, I didn’t miss a step, and those darn muffin cups looked so happy full of gooey, bran flakey, muffin mix!

As I placed the muffin pan in the oven, I recited my cooking mantra just for good measure, which goes like this: ‘Don’t burn them, don’t burn them, don’t burn them!’ I am notorious for burning things, usually because I am multi-tasking while I bake. Not today! Other than taking a few pics along the way, I stuck to baking until those muffins were in, and out of, the oven.

My new kitchen filled with the smell of a job well done. I didn’t have a toothpick to check if they were done cooking, though, so I had to leap forward in faith and take them out before I burned them into oblivion. My little colony of Bran Muffins were almost ready for the ultimate test: my mouth.

Was it worth my small fortune to make my batch of muffins? Absolutely. And while it’s already Winter in The Rockies, the sweet potato, dried currants, and cinnamon of this batch would also make it perfect for Fall. They warmed my happy soul, and warmed my new apartment with the love that only orange zest and cinnamon have to offer.

Now I know that if I can conquer A Bran New World, I can conquer anything.

A Bran New World

makes 12 regular muffins

1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potato (about 1 medium potato)

1 cup buttermilk (I substituted plain yogurt)

½ cup packed brown sugar

3 tbsp vegetable oil

2 eggs

2 tsp grated orange zest

4 cups Bran Flakes cereal

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup dried currants

½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts (I used pecans)

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp each ground nutmeg and ground allspice

  1. Preheat oven to 375˚ F. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together sweet potato, buttermilk, brown sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, and orange zest. Add Bran Flakes and mix well.
  3. In another large bowl, combine flour, currants, nuts, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and allspice. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix just until dry ingredients are moistened. Batter will be thick.
  4. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Bake for 17 or 18 minutes, or until muffins are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in center of muffin comes out clean. Remove muffins from pan and cool slightly on a wire rack. Serve warm.

from Eat, Shrink & Be Merry! Great-Tasting Food That Won’t Go from Your Lips to Your Hips!by Janet and Greta Podleski

Muffin Mondays: Kim’s Chocolate Oatmeal Peanut Butter Muffins

This week on Muffin Mondays, Kim touches on one of the reasons I love muffins so much. When she calls her creation “a bit healthier than your standard brownie,” she shows how muffins balance health and indulgence. At first glance, these may not appear to be the “healthiest” muffins out there. Compared to your average commercial calorie-whopper, however, they are full of wholesome ingredients, and high in protein too. Make them small for help with self-control and reap the delicious rewards! -Jen

Hello everyone, I’m Kim and I have a little food blog called the Ungourmet. I’m such a fan of muffins that I was ecstatic when Jen asked me to be a part of her series, Muffin Mondays.

I started my blog back in February of this year and I’ve been having a lot of fun cooking up a storm (and driving my family crazy with my experimentation!) One of my favorite things to do in my kitchen is bake muffins.

These Chocolate Oatmeal Peanut Butter muffins remind me of a brownie, but with the whole grains and whole wheat flour they are a bit healthier than your standard brownie. They are packed with much yumminess and were a huge hit at my house. I hope you will love them too!

Thanks again Jen for inviting me to be a part of the fun.

Kim from the UnGourmet.com

Chocolate Oatmeal Peanut Butter Muffins

by theUngourmet

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/3 cup oil

1 large egg

1/3 cup peanut butter

1 tsp vanilla

3/4 cup whole wheat flour

¼ cup powdered unsweetened cocoa

2/3 cup brown sugar

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

½ cup roasted chopped hazelnuts

¼ cup chopped Spanish peanuts

½ cup dark chocolate chips

½ cup peanut butter chips

  1. Soak the oats in the buttermilk for about 15 minutes. Briefly stir in the oil, egg, peanut butter, and vanilla. Add the remaining ingredients and stir just until combined.
  2. Fill muffin cups evenly with batter (I was able to get 16 muffins out of this mix) and place into a 375 degree oven for 16-18 minutes until toothpick inserted comes out clean.