Muffin Mondays: Mom’s Pumpkin Quinoa Muffins

This post begins a fall series on that best-loved of breakfast foods: the muffin. In all its varieties, the muffin captures special moments in the guise of the commonplace.

I am honored to present this inaugural guest post by my mother, Sheri Ward, whose solution to one of life’s transitions inspired the idea to devote my Mondays to muffins. I’ve invited some of my favorite bloggers and writers to share their most muffin-esque words and recipes, which I will dutifully post on Mondays throughout the coming weeks.

So if your mornings are lacking luster on these chilly days, check back often for new reasons to mix up a muffin or two.

Hello readers, this is Jen’s Mom writing. As I was thinking of how to begin my first (and hopefully not last!) guest post here on my daughter Jen’s food blog, I thought what better way to begin than this?

With the word “Mom” comes many things … gifts that have been lovingly passed down through generations of mothers before me, gifts that I have endeavored to pass on to my own children. For my love of cooking, and especially baking, comes from my own mother, and hers before that, and hers before that. It seems we all just can’t bake enough! It is almost a sacred thing to the women of our family: the dreaming and planning, then the creation of some warm and wondrous treat. And then of course the best part, the tasting — usually with a mug of freshly brewed coffee. We women have been known to curl up in bed with a favorite cookbook or food magazine, in search of another new recipe.

My husband Don and I recently embarked on a new stage of life: We are now “empty nesters” On the one hand it’s a lovely time of life, with a quieter household and a time of re-discovering each other. But after almost 30 years of baking and cooking for a family of 5, I found myself somewhat lost in this new chapter. Who would I bake for now? Yes, we both still enjoy fresh cookies, but a dozen muffins for two people? It was a real dilemma!

And then it came to me. I would start a muffin club with my Mom and sister Judi, also a recent empty nester. Every Monday morning we’d take turns baking a dozen muffins or scones, and deliver four of them to the others, keeping 4 for ourselves. And so, the “Monday Morning Marvelous Muffin Club” was born.

We are blessed to live within three miles of each other so this has made it somewhat easier. What a delightful treat is has been to open the door into my garage on Monday morning to find a basket of warm muffins waiting. We are all loving it.

Fall always draws me to the fragrant spiciness of all things pumpkin: pie, scones, and of course, muffins. And so it was that the first recipe I baked for our Monday Morning Muffin Club was Pumpkin Quinoa muffins, a new and healthy twist on what is no doubt a favorite with many of you. Quinoa, an ancient grain, is a comlete protein and gives these muffins a nice texture and a slightly nutty taste. The addition of pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, adds just the right amount of crunch.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, and that maybe I’ve inspired you to start your own muffin club with one or two close friends. Happy baking!

~Sheri Ward

Sheri and Jen

Pumpkin Quinoa Muffins

makes 12 large muffins

In a large bowl combine:

1 ½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup raisins
¾ cup cooked and drained quinoa (best made the day before, the grains fluffed with a fork).

Combine in another bowl:

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree
¾ cup buttermilk or kefir
4 Tbsp melted butter
2 tsp vanilla extract


Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until just incorporated. Spoon into muffin pan lined with paper liners or buttered. Sprinkle with a little cinnamon and sugar, and bake at 400 for 25 minutes (until nicely browned and passes the toothpick test). Let rest 5 min, then remove to a rack to cool.

Hi…I’m Jen’s Mom. As I was thinking of how to begin my first (and
hopefully not last!) guest post on my daughter Jen’s food blog,
freshcrackedpepper, I thought what better way to begin than this? For with
the word “Mom” comes many things….gifts that have been lovingly passed
down through generations of mothers before me, gifts that I have endeavored
to pass on to my own children. For my love of cooking, and especially
baking, comes from my own mother, and hers before that… and hers before
that. It seems we all just can’t bake enough! It is almost a sacred thing to
the women of our family…first the dreaming and planning, then the creation
of some warm and wondrous treat, and of course the best part…the
tasting…usually with a steaming mug of freshly brewed coffee. In our
family, we women have all been known to curl up in bed at night with a
favorite cookbook or new food magazine, in search of yet another new
recipe…we enjoy this more than most novels!My husband Don and I recently embarked on a new stage of life…we are now
“empty nesters”! While it is a lovely time of life, with a (much!)quieter
household and a time of re-discovering each other, after almost 30 years of
baking and cooking for a family of 5, I found myself somewhat lost in this
new chapter of life. Who could I bake for now? Yes, we both still enjoy
fresh cookies and baking, but a dozen muffins for 2 people? I was in a real
dilemna! And then one day it came to me….I would start a muffin club with
my Mom and my sister Judi,also a recent empty nester! Early every Monday
morning, we’d each take turns baking a dozen muffins (or scones) and deliver
4 piping hot muffins to each other, keeping 4 for ourselves. We are blessed
to live within 3 miles of each other so this would make it easy. And so the
“Monday Morning Marvelous Muffin Club” was born! And what a delightful
surprise and treat is has been to open the door into my garage early every
Monday morning and find a basket of fresh warm muffins waiting for me on my
freezer! And it is so nice to bake one week, then have a surprise waiting
for me the next 2 weeks. We are all loving it!


The season of fall always draws me to the fragrant spiciness of all things
pumpkin….pumpkin pie, pumpkin scones, and of course pumpkin muffins. And
so it was that the first recipe I baked for our Monday morning muffin club
was Pumpkin Quinoa muffins, a new and healthy twist on what is no doubt a
favorite with many of you. Quinoa, an ancient grain, is a comlete protein
and gives these muffins a nice texture and a slightly nutty taste. The
addition of pepitos, which are pumpkin seeds, also adds a nice crunch.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, and that you are inspired to start your own
muffin club with one or two close friends…enjoy!!

Happy baking!
Sheri Ward

Homemade Energy Bars IV: Sunshine Bars

I could do the cucaracha right now. Problem is, I don’t really know what the cucaracha is. But if I did, I’d clutch these granola bars in my hands and shake them like marakas.

You see, I’ve been wishin’ and hopin’ and dreamin’ about creating the perfect home-made baked granola bars: toasty brown on the outside but with just the right chew factor that (some of) the bought ones have. I’ve managed with the chewy ones and the rolled ones and the fudgy ones, but the good old fashioned baked version has eluded me.

Part of the problem is pickyness. I’ve tried over 15 recipes, tweaking and re-tweaking. I’ve meticulously recorded every substitution and result. Most of the bars have turned out quite edible — something to be proud of even. But there’s always been one tiny problem. Too sticky. Too crispy. Too crumbly.

To add to my dismay, I desperately wanted crispy rice cereal in these elusive bars. Just a wee bit of that airy crunch you can hear in the back of your head when you chew. Whenever I’d add the sticky ingredients, those rice puffs would soak it all in and mush up like an abandoned bowl of Cheerios. I wasn’t about to make Rice Krispy squares, laden with butter and melted marshmallows. I wanted something good.

Eventually I gave up and bought some, just like normal people do. But after the 18th disappointing, too-sweet bar with a novel-length ingredients list, I went back to my oats and my coconut. I begged them to co-operate. I needed them to get me through the last two weeks of school without putting up a fight.

I guess I did something right. Sometimes I think ingredients, like people, just need to be loved. People talk to plants, horses, babies — why not craisins and pumpkin seeds?  As I wax poetic about something that was probably more luck than oat-whispering, I beseech you: Quaker and Kashi got nothing on homemade bars. Unless, of course, it takes you months to get them how you like them.

Good granola bars depend on the right proportion of ingredients, a sticky binder, and the right baking time and temperature. After many trials, I think I’ve found the right bar to usher me into a new season of triathlon training.

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spiced bangladeshi mung beans and rice

I didn’t intend to post on this, but it begs to be shared. Born from the need to make lots of healthy food to sustain us through a busy week, it materialized one afternoon between work sessions. The recipe is from a former roommate, and it’s the kind of thing you’ll almost always have the ingredients for.

Usually when I think of mung beans, bean sprouts jump to mind. But this showcases them as the meaty, chewy legume they were born to be. OK, maybe beans don’t have destinies, but we can pretend. You can find them dried in Asian grocery stores, and all they need is a couple hours’ soak.

You start off by frying some fragrant spices in oil, add your beans and rice, top it with some water and set it to simmer. It’s that easy, and it all happens in one happy wok. It’s incredibly low-maintenance, great for a busy work day.

It’s hard to get sick of this (even after day 5) because you can dress it up in so many different ways. By adding sweet caramelized onions, a sliced hard boiled egg, and a side of yogurt, it becomes like an Indian curry—a platform for all sorts of tasty additions. You could make fried rice out of it one evening, and wrap it up in some flatbread with slices of baked tofu the next.

Sometimes a bowl of beans and rice, redolent of mild chai, can remind you that it’s good to be alive. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it makes me appreciate the simple things.

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steel yourself for winter

Summer day after summer day out at our family cottage, us kids would wake at 6 every morning to our grandfather’s porridge. He had put it on the old stove long before then, and retreated to the forest to chop wood or “putter,” as our parents called it.

Slowly, we’d rise, assembling one by one by the fire he’d made.

I didn’t love oatmeal as a kid, but I loved him and so I ate it anyway.

I’ll always associate the storied three-bears’ dish with him—doling it out into bowls for our crew of cousins. We’d sit out on the deck around a cracked wooden table, us girls in our baby-doll nighties, and him hovering with pot in hand. I’m not sure if it’s a photograph I see or a real memory.

I guess we all come back to porridge, because lately it’s all I crave for breakfast. I’ve also recently discovered the steel cut, or Irish variety, which is less processed and more “whole” than it’s rolled and instant cousins.

Calorie-wise there is no nutritional difference between steel cut and rolled, but the extra steps in the processing of rolled oats does diminish some of the micronutrients (like Magnesium and Selenium) that oats have to offer. Steel cut oats are whole groats that have been chopped into two or three pieces. Rolled oats are groats that have been steamed and pressed. Quick or instant oats have been chopped, steamed, pressed, cooked, and dried. Even the littlest bear doesn’t want that in her bowl.

Oats are a superfood like no other. They stabilize your blood sugar, meaning you won’t get hungry as soon after eating breakfast. They also lower your cholesterol, and are high in fiber and protein.

But besides health, steel cut oats are just so much better than the instant ones. I can’t even begin to explain it. They create their own starchy sauce while they cook, and when their done still have an al dente chewy snap that other hot cereals don’t hold a candle to. They also keep really well in the fridge, so you can make a huge batch on Sunday evening and have it for breakfast all week.

Making this hearty breakfast is a snap. For two servings, dry toast 1 cup of oats to give them a nice, nutty taste. You can do this right in the pot you’ll be using, stirring constantly over high heat for 2 minutes, or until you can smell them toasting.

Then add 3 cups of water to the saucepan (remove it from heat while you do this, or it might splatter, and watch out for steam!), stir, and lower the heat to medium-low. DO NOT ADD SALT. Salt inhibits the release of starch, and will stop your oats from becoming as creamy as they were meant to be. Now you can go take a shower or do what you need to do for about 20 minutes, without stirring them once. You’ll find the heat setting on your element that’s right for you…the stew should gradually thicken and bubble gently. The higher the heat, the faster they’ll cook.

When you come back to your oats, they should be nice and tender, and just beginning to stick to the bottom of the pan. It’s no problem if they’re sticking a bit, unless you have the heat too high, they’ll scrape right off.

Scoop a generous portion for yourself into a bowl, and sprinkle with a little good-quality sea salt (we’re lucky to have some from Slovenia kickin’ around right now, a gift from a friend). Salt actually increases the natural sweetness of the oats: you might not even need sugar! If you want it, add brown sugar or maple syrup to taste, a shake of cinnamon, and some milk.

And once, promise me at least once, you’ll try it with whole milk or a splash of cream. To feed a bigger crowd or have leftovers for mornings ahead, simply increase your oats and water proportionally.

mexi-quinoa acorn squash

My love affair with quinoa began a few years ago when a roommate wowed me with amazing salad of the said grain, topped with candied nuts. There was something different about this chewy, fluffy side dish. Something wonderful.

Quinoa (pronounced Kee-No-Wah), is a South American plant whose seeds are often confused with the grain family. The quinoa seeds function like rice, couscous, millet, or barley–more as a grain than as a seed.

The Incas referred to quinoa as the “mother of all grain.” I’m not sure whether this was because they knew about it’s unusually high protein content (12-15%) or that it contains a balanced set of amino acids. My guess is they probably just thought it tasted good and was easy to prepare.

When the little couscous-like grains cook, the germ unfold from the rest of the starch to create a whimsical spiral. I think it’s one of the nicest-looking things a person could eat, and I’m always looking for new ways to prepare it. It’s great in salads, but I thought I’d introduce it to my favorite winter squash: the acorn.

This dish is very easy to prepare and can be thrown together quickly. Since quinoa lasts in your cupboard for months, and acorn squash will wait almost as long, this supper can be adapted to most anything you have lying around: cans of black beans and corn, dredges of peppers and onions in your crisper, spices waiting to warm you.

Plus, any meal served in a one of nature’s edible bowls automatically gets bonus points. You don’t really even need a plate. If you’re a neat eater, that is.

So when you’re done reading the recipe, throw it out and experiment away. Trust me: squash are very forgiving.
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Journey through the Book of Bread: II

Back in May I started a series to track my journey through The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum. In that first post, I shared about this wonderful find and how I hoped it would be the end to a streak of bread failures. Now that I think about it they weren’t even all that terrible. But her loaves, goodness. Her loaves are worth whole afternoons. Her loaves will surely summon my heirloom tomatoes to finally redden and come home to their destiny in the revered TTS. (Toasted Tomato Sandwich, for those of you unfamiliar with my family’s tendency to abbreviate everything.)

The revelation that this book brought faded quickly with the arrival of summer, whose heat promptly bowled over all my wheaty aspirations. The flash of June left me running from an apartment that made me feel like a bun in the oven. Rose’s book went back to the library and onto my Amazon wishlist. All those bookmarked recipes gave way to store bought bread (gasp!) and meals where cooking either took place outside or not at all. In moments of extreme weakness there was always bread from the farmer’s market, but as good as it was, it just wasn’t. I hadn’t watched it grow up, you know?

Last week a serendipitous email brought me back to bread. It was from Rose herself, successful cookbook author, patron saint of Cake and Bread. It read simply “have I thanked you yet for your great posting about bread and my book and work? this was so special I was waiting ’til I had time to do it full justice.” I had emailed her my post and then forgotten all about it.

Her email, along with the news that freshcrackedpepper was being added to a famous person’s list of links have sent me running back to my oven begging for forgiveness. The cool evenings beginning to entice Syracuse into late summer might help with that too.

This can be mine again, adorned with pithy tomatoes, buttery home-grown lettuce, and sprouts born not of soil but of water in a jar in my cupboard.

This Tyrolean Ten-Grain Torpedo that was my third Bread Bible Bread was an absolute treat. Notes accompanying my pictures include: Might’ve let rise a tad too long (was working in the garden), it browned really really fast. Covered with foil and finished the latter half of baking right on the baking stone. Very crusty and the grains on top were a rustic addition. Has that almost metallic, iron-y taste I like in bread. Vital wheat gluten makes it almost impossibly soft for a baguette-style loaf.

Not my most poetic writing, but enough to take me back to that May day that passed pleasantly in my garden while my poor dough puffed its way just past perfection.

Months later I can’t remember why Rose called it Tyrolean. My guess is that it has something to do with Tyrol, the region of Europe that bridges part of Austria and Northern Italy. Beyond that it’s escaped me. I’m assuming the torpedo part comes from its shape and the ten grains from its crunchy composition.

Now that I occupy my own eighth of an inch a famous bread baker’s website, I’ll have to get back to work ploughing through her mammoth collection. As long as these late August nights keep wrapping themselves around the day like a cool cloth on a fevered forehead, I can be found crouched before my 400 degree oven wishing it had a window. Inside, great bread will be happening. Bread so good that just knowing about it will be enough.


While the red cabbage may not get points for being the most superficially alluring vegetable to grace the produce shelves as of late, inside it’s got something else going on. Past the skin of the red (or more accurately, purple) cabbage lies the intricate story of its growth. Past the clean edge of the knife is a cruciferous labyrinth that I wish for a moment I was small enough to walk.

Though usually associated with Eastern European dishes, red cabbage fares well in all sorts of international cuisine. I’ve seen it on Mexican menus, and in Asian concoctions like the Gado-Gado I will share with you today. Gado-Gado is dear to me. It reminds me of a certain roommate who introduced me to it years ago, and also of health. One blustery evening in Winnipeg I returned home from a vigorous workout to find this colorful dish waiting for me by candlelight.

It had everything: protein fiber, and too many vitamins and minerals to name. It nourished me fully, in body and spirit. With crunch, nuttiness, saltiness and sweetness shining through purple, orange, green and white, Gado-Gado is a little world on a plate.

According to various sources, gado-gado means either “fight fight,” “hodgepodge,” or “to mix together.” It’s fascinating how words breed meanings often different from the original; to mix, to argue. But let’s not get too wrapped up in specifics — we’ve got some hodgepodging to do. For Gado-Gado, in all its mystery, is really just salad with peanut dressing.

After the preparation, the layers unfold, starting with a base of Wehani rice and the illustrious cabbage:

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a bowl of spring and olive oil

My shoulders are lightly pink from running a race yesterday in Ithaca, Central New York’s sunniest of towns. (This is the place that collectively banned Wal-Mart from setting up shop — thus holding my cultural allegiance and continued patronship.) With temperatures hovering around 15 Celsius, the past two days have seen their share of rolled down windows, bike rides, hammocks and barbeques. (The latter two sent my way care of friends.)

Though I’ve cooked asparagus already — how unseasonal of me, I know— it’s time to officially welcome it into my repertoire as a spring staple. Woody stalks and blossoming tips, you are hereby declared most esteemed guest of dinners to come.

I’ve been inspired lately by Heidi’s healthy-looking goodies over at 101 Cookbooks, and so chose to indulge my asparagus fancies with one of her rice-bowl recipes. I must say that I wasn’t thrilled with the last two things I made from her blog (this is likely due to my own shortcomings and not her lack of culinary finesse), but was determined to find something in her wholesome foods database that would turn out as earthy and natural looking as her photos proclaimed. The chosen dish seemed like a smooth transition from a rice n’ beans winter to a fresh green spring.

Settling on a dinner that promised to come together in ten minutes (after cooking the rice) I got to work chopping onions, garlic and asparagus, and whisking tahini, garlic and lemon juice. It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized its uncanny similarity to another salad I featured on this here little site. Oh well, guess I’m a sucker for the nutty tartness of tahini- kissed chickpeas staring up at me like a pile of suns shining on my plate. (I might’ve clocked in at 13 or so minutes, a forgivable offense if there ever was one.)

What I wish to share with you tonight is a twofold lesson. One, experiment with rice, my friends. There are some darn good ones out there. For those of you in Syracuse, Wegman’s carries the Lundberg Family Farms’ line of ecologically- and sustainably-farmed rice blends. For this recipe I used their (very affordable) Wehani brown rice. If the following recipe doesn’t convince you, maybe the fact that it smells like pumpkin pie while it cooks will. (Also check out Han’s market for their massive bags of Thai black rice and other pretty shades of the ubiquitous white grain.)

Secondly, I want to talk about oil. Olive, coconut, safflower, sesame, walnut, peanut, flaxseed — it’s like a Romantic poem in the making. And frankly, this ever-expanding list of oils to try is starting to confuse me. Each with its own unique smoke point, health benefits, balance of omega-3s, etcetera etcetera, it’s all left me floundering. I’m going to try to be patient with myself and let my oil knowledge evolve at a natural pace.

But making tonight’s dinner taught me that what I’ve been reading about olive oil at least is correct. And that is that extra virgin olive oil is best consumed raw, in terms of taste and nutrition. I won’t bore you with all the technical talk about free radicals and fatty acids, saving my words instead for the veneration of olive oil as garnish: when a bite of tonight’s dinner proved a little dry, instead of adding more dressing I tried crowning it with a drizzle of olive oil — a technique applauded in cookbooks and on health websites. What followed was what you’d expect if all the flavours of the dish joined hands with a particle of silky butter and proceeded to tango all over my mouth.

When you bring virgin or first (cold)-pressed olive oil to high temperatures, you miss out on the liquid perfume that it truly is. In Alice Waters’ words, “It is simply a waste to expose extra virgin oil to the direct heat of a pan as its fruity character and color are soon lost.” Alternately, olive oil under the name “pure” is made from extracting the oil through other methods and then refining it. Refined oils are actually better to cook with, as they are already “accustomed” to heat. I will probably continue to cook with my liquid gold, given the industrial-sized tin of it we bought last fall (apparently another no-no), but will now consider it a tabletop companion to my salt and pepper shakers. Try it on grilled or steamed veggies, salads and appetizers, grilled meats, and drizzled over soups and pasta.

I keep olive oil, along with balsamic vinegar, in empty wine bottles with pour tops fitted into the necks. I stole this idea from a friend, and love its convenience and stylishness.

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patriotic muffins

In Canada we have this great stuff called Red River Cereal. Not only is it Canadian, it actually originated in Manitoba’s storied Red River Valley–the area surrounding the city I’m from. I don’t know if it’s available in conventional grocery stores in the US, but as with everything else, is available here. (Bob’s Red Mill 7 or 10 grain cereal will also do the trick, though the result will possess a diminished cultural caliber.

As far as whole foods go, this one is tops. Made of just three simple ingredients — cracked wheat, rye and flax– this stuff will boost your High-Density Lipoproteins (the “good” cholesterol everyone is raving about these days) like nobody’s business. HDL Muffins didn’t quite have the same ring to it though.

And just in case the cholesterol pitch wasn’t enough, these babies are high in fiber and protein as well. So pack up those power bars and whip out your wooden spoons.

Since we’re not swallows who can just peck away at grains laid out on the glistening buffet of late February snow, we humans have to turn cereal into more tender possibilities. Whether it’s cooked on the stovetop to yield a hot viscous pudding with a satisfying chew, or made into these Red River Valley Muffins, I think we might actually have it a little better than the birds.

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Chameleon Granola

I often call it my favourite meal of the day. I love that delightful first crunch of that says “hello world.” I love cracking the shell of a boiled egg, exposing its warm, opaque flesh. I confess that I often fall asleep thinking about breakfast.

For some, breakfast is just fuel for the day. For others, it can be a reason to get up.

When I was cycling around Vancouver island in the Spring of ’06, breakfast was the only meal I’d eat out. I’d ride around a new town for an hour, looking for the perfect nook. I was often rewarded, like when I found these cinnamon buns at a rustic bakery, hidden away in cottage country forest, brushed inside with the slightest hint of raspberry.

It was so good, I didn’t even notice the plastic.

Breakfast with friends is a vulnerable meal to share; each rubs sleep from his or her eyes, and dips into the first morsels of a day full of senses. I have so many cozy memories of breakfasting: my grandfather’s porridge, fancy sweet potato pancakes at Fresh (a fantastic Winnipeg restaurant), a plate heaping with goodies at a greasy spoon, my friend Krista’s rum and banana crepes, poori bhaji in India.

Among all the ways to break a fast, granola holds its own. (Hey, I did live in Winnipeg’s ‘Granola Belt’ for 4 years.) It is a constant friend, showing up in our house at least every two weeks with new displays of taste and texture. This is the perfect recipe-in-flux, forgiving and even flourishing under the most brash of adjustments and tweaks. I think that trying to find new combinations of texture, chunkiness, sweetness, and health might just be one of my lifelong quests.

You can find much more straightforward granola recipes out there, but believe me, in terms of this morning delight I’ve played the explorer and the scientist. I can’t tell you how you’ll like it best, but I can tell you what to try. As the Chinese Proverb so goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Here’s to a lifetime of granola.

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