Sunday, January 08, 2006

Oat my boat

I have always thought of plain muesli as the austere Aunt of cereals. Its stead, wholesome nature exists for your own good, cleansing and teaching your innards a good, long, slightly harsh lesson, after they’ve been extremely naughty. In the end, you feel all the better for it, but the whole experience may have not been that pleasurable. Granola on the other hand, is the cool, vibrantly fun, young Auntie that purports to be your best friend. Knowing you’ve been bad, she tries to get a similar message across but does so in a much, much sweeter way.

To be honest, like any two members of my family, I love them both equally – they simply have different methods of achieving an end result. And just like your more severe aunt, muesli has the capacity to be a softer, more exciting entity. Anyone who has had the pleasure of staying at a Swissôtel will have hopefully experienced their signature Swiss Bircher Muesli, a breakfast ambrosia if ever one existed. I had never come across Bircher until my stay there, but a moment’s light research revealed that this thickly harmonious blend of straightforward cereal, natural yoghurt and succulent fruit (and often a mischievous addition of cream) soaked to perfection, is a Swiss staple. It is near dessert-like in its eating and although sensationally good for you (sans cream), tastes anything but. Bircher requires some pre-mediation, as it must be assembled at least the night before in order for the cereal to swell and become fecund with the liquid components. Yes, I know it requires more volition than most people have before they go to bed, but I promise you it is worth it.

I did have a look for recipes for the dish, but in the end, I trusted my own culinary instincts. There are times when food is about chemistry and measuring, and others when it is wholly intuitive. When it comes to a dish like this, there seems little point being finicky with scales and measuring jugs. What you will need:

  • muesli base (you can get good, cheap ones from Holland & Barrett or other such health food stores)
  • oatbran
  • raisins
  • hazelnuts
  • a mixture of you favourite fresh fruit (such as blueberries, raspberries, braeburn apples)
  • natural yoghurt
  • greek yoghurt
  • whole milk (I like all of these to be organic, but it’s not necessary)
  • runny honey (I use New Zealand Clover Honey for its marshmallowy goopyness)

I tend to make this in individual breakfast bowls so a) you can tailor it to each person depending on what they want in it and b) it saves on washing up.
In each bowl, pour in as much muesli base as you would normally eat plain, sprinkle over a little oatbran and toss in as many raisins and hazelnuts as you see fit. Add your fruit, either whole if it’s small (in the case of berries), or chopped up (in the case of apples). On a small sidenote, if you are using apples, I recommend something sharp like a Braeburn opposed to a floury apple, because their acidity and texture hold their own within the mixture – a less crisp pomme falls apart quite unpleasantly and barely resembles an apple in flavour once soaked.

Cover the mixture with milk completely and add a generous splodge of both the yoghurts. I’ve put Greek yoghurt in place of the cream here, for the sake of your arteries, but if you are using the more naughty of the two, then dispense of it at this stage. Drizzle in a scant teaspoon of honey – more or less depending on the sweetness of your tooth and then fold the lot together. It may seem very thin and runny, but there is no reason to panic here – the cereal has an extraordinary capacity to absorb it all and in turn, make the remaining liquid rich and viscous. I take great pleasure in crushing some of the blueberries whilst I’m doing this too in order to make them burst, their violet juices marbling into the cereal. Cover with clingfilm and place dutifully in the fridge overnight. When you stumble blearily into the kitchen the next morning, what you should find is a sweet, opulent mini-feast waiting readily for you to savour with a large spoon. For those who are more decadent than I, a little lightly whipped cream could now be folded in, turning a chaste breakfast into a debauched dessert.


Sometimes, no matter how delicious it is, a soft, slushy breakfast is not appropriate. Yet the idea of something dripping with grease or yeastily puffed doesn’t seem quite right either. When you want cereal and you want crunch (and not the kind of crunch beginning with a ‘k’ that is so full of sugar you might as well have chocolate cake for breakfast) Granola is your best bet. With the risk of sounding like a Sunday School teacher, tucking into a bowl of it is akin to eating a mouthful of a sun-blessed field before harvest. It’s heartening and healthy but sweet and scrumptious. Buying it readymade is ridiculously expensive though, especially given that I can eat a whole bag in two days, so I set out to make my own. There were a multitude of Granola recipes out there, some which had more ingredients than I cared for (like the one in Lawson’s Feast) but the formula that I began to use, adapt and love is Merrilees Parker’s from an issue of Olive Magazine (September 2005). The recipe published here is pretty much hers in terms of quantities – I’ve just substituted the amount of walnuts for almonds and used oatbran instead of wheatbran. It also contains an (entirely optional but entirely elevating) addition of sunflower seeds.


  • 100g bran
  • 150g jumbo oats
  • 25g sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
  • 100g almonds, roughly chopped into large pieces
  • 3 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 6 tbsp maple syrup
  • very generous handful of dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries – used on their own or mixed)

Preheat your oven to 190°C (160°C if fan-assisted). On a non-stick tray, combine all the cereals and seeds, and then drizzle over the oil and the maple syrup. Stir until everything is coated evenly; shake the tray to uniformly distribute the mix over its surface and bake for 20 minutes or so. During the baking time, make sure you keep a close eye on the mixture to ensure it doesn’t catch and stir it a few times, spreading the granola from the centre of the tray to the outside and vice versa. This should guarantee it toasts evenly and doesn’t colour too much. (The first time I made it, it I didn’t realise I needed to do this, and ended up with a tray of cereal that was overly brown around the edges, tasting a little closer to burnt than I would have liked. You can see it pictured above in all its autumnal glory – my later efforts look a little more summery). The Granola is ready when it crisps-up and is palely tinged gold. If you drop a spoonful back on to an empty part of the tray it should make a bit of a racket compared to the soft sound the uncooked cereal produces. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool completely on the tray. Stir in the dried fruit, and store in an airtight container. Serve with milk or sprinkled into yoghurt.


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