How to Modify a Recipe Part 3: Granola Before and After

(If you haven't already done so, please read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

Today we're going to cover Part 3 of my four-part series on How to Modify a Recipe. We've already covered some simple modification examples and my Six Rules. Today, I'm going to show you a "before and after" modification of my Granola recipe.

Just like the waffles modification, this isn't rocket science. And I'm not trying to impress you with how radically or aggressively I change change up the recipe. Rather, my goal is to show you the thought process behind the changes. After I show you the process here, you should have a useful blueprint that you can use to make deeper and more material modifications and improvements to your recipes too.

First though, let's start with the original recipe, copied directly from the Wall Street Journal:

Jovia's Homemade Granola
Yield: 5 cups
Active preparation time: 10 minutes
Baking time: 30 to 40 minutes

4 cups old-fashioned oats
1-1/2 cups whole raw almonds
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey, preferably acacia
1 vanilla bean, scraped, with seeds

Mix first six ingredients together.
Melt oil, honey and vanilla bean and seeds together.
Strain through a fine sieve. Pour over oat mixture and mix until completely saturated.

Place mix on sheet pan and bake in a 325-degree own for 30 to 40 minutes stirring every 10 minutes to ensure even baking. Granola is done when toasty and golden in color.

First of all, I've got to compliment the WSJ for accurate and useful data on prep time for a recipe. This won't be the last time I say that either. Some really good recipes have been showing up in the Weekend Journal over the past several months, and although they don't always pass the Five Easy Questions, they are always clearly written with straightforward instructions and helpful prep time data.

You'd be surprised how many recipes are poorly written, have steps given out of order, or are downright inscrutable and require a round of deciphering to put into use. We've talked about how you should always read the recipe twice, but I draw the line at decipherment.

But enough Mr. Nice Guy--the bottom line is this recipe needs a little surgery.

Let's start with the ingredients and my initial thoughts after looking them over.

When I got to "1 vanilla bean" I'll admit I kind of got stopped in my tracks. This is an obvious breach of the Five Easy Questions. Would they actually sell individually wrapped vanilla beans at my grocery store? Somehow I doubt it. And if I could find them, they'd probably come in a one-pound bag for $29.95, basically the cost of six boxes of ripoff cereal. All for one lousy single bean that I have to scrape and then strain.

Yes, those were my initial thoughts when I read the recipe. Don't worry, I've already stepped up my therapy sessions to twice a week.

So okay, clearly I'm not going to bother with the zen of the vanilla bean. And if you read my essay on How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions, you'd know that normally this would be where I'd yell out "Next!" and move on to another recipe.

But I still felt like this recipe had some serious potential. So I committed yet another violation of one of my cardinal rules (Do it One Time By the Book) and I didn't do it one time by the book. I altered this ingredient right off the bat.

Instead of finding an individually wrapped vanilla bean and then lovingly scraping it and running it through a fine sieve, how about something a ton simpler, like adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract instead? That should work.

There are other problems with the recipe. A cup and a half of raw whole almonds could put the budget for making this dish up where it stops being a worthwhile substitute for ripoff cereal. Substituting peanuts might work (unless you have a peanut allergy and peanuts send you into anaphylactic shock), but they are so strong tasting and smelling that they might overwhelm the granola. But what's wrong with walnuts? Or raisins or other dried fruit? Any of these could make for better low-cost alternatives.

Also, I was obviously planning on leaving out the salt, since by now we all know that using salt = cheating. Note that sea salt actually has a lower sodium content than plain old lowbrow salt. But that still doesn't mean you have to use it.

And I'm not all that worried about having "freshly ground cinnamon" or "freshly ground nutmeg." I just haven't gotten to the point where I'm going to grind my own spices, so the jars of "stale-ly ground" cinnamon and nutmeg that I already do own will have to do. :) When I start grinding my own spices, this blog will no longer deserve to be called Casual Kitchen. Maybe by then I'll change the name to Anal Kitchen.

My final ingredient change is to take "honey, preferably acacia" and uh, substitute plain old honey instead.

"Preferably acacia"... To me, when somebody writes up a recipe (or worse an entire cookbook) and puts super-specialized ingredients like that into it, they're making the recipe more about them than about the food (Look at me!!! I know what acacia honey is!!!). Granted, there are actually a zillion discrete kinds of honey, and that's amazing and everything, but we're talking about baking honey into granola here. Let's put things into perspective. If you're going to require a super-specific special ingredient in a recipe, there should be a real reason for it to be there. There's no need to show off.

It's at times like this that I have to break out my pen and just scribble out the pretentiousness.

There's not much more to it than that. The last step is just making a final rewrite of the recipe (which I usually do after I make it at least once or twice), to get the cooking times and other minor instructions down. Everybody's oven runs at a slightly different temperature, and as we've seen from some of the reader comments on the granola post, this granola has a tendency to burn a little bit. So in that case, perhaps I'd cut the oven temperature down by 25 degrees or subtract 5 minutes off the cooking time, or make a note in capital letters on the recipe to "make sure to stir every 10 minutes!" You get the picture. These are the types of final tweaks you'll put on a recipe after you've finished with the major changes like ingredient substitutions.

There you go! These are the types of questions and issues I focus on when I want to rejigger a recipe to better meet my needs. As you can see below, the modified version is faster, has fewer steps, contains easier-to-find ingredients, and it costs less. And last but not least, it's quite a bit less pretentious.

(adapted and heavily modified without permission from the Wall Street Journal)

Dry Ingredients:
4 cups oats (not quick oats)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup to 1-1/2 cups of nuts (unsalted almonds, walnuts or even peanuts are fine here)
[Can also leave out nuts and add 1 to 1-1/2 cups raisins or other dried fruit, if desired]

Liquid Ingredients:
1/4 cup oil (corn oil or vegetable oil)
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (please don't let me catch you using the fake stuff here)

Mix dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl.
Place liquid ingredients into a small sauce pan and warm on a stove on medium low. Stir until combined.
Pour liquid mixture over dry ingredients and stir well until dry ingredients are coated.
Spread mix on a cookie sheet and bake at 325 for 30-40 minutes until golden brown, stirring every 10-15 minutes or so to prevent burning.


Anonymous said...

Once in awhile it is okay to try new things even if they might be pricey. The vanilla beans are very accessible now in most grocery stores (even Trader Joes) and it does not really take that much time to scrape the seeds. I found that using vanilla extract is not a 1:1 substitute -- beans being more concentrated in flavor and not ading extra liquid. I would use almonds and walnuts (great for the heart)-- even though this would make the recipe a "financial loss" you would gain some advantages in quality. And I would use salt. It is 1/2 a teaspoon and is there to make the flavors pop-out more.
It is not so horrible to go a little beyond limitations of the wallet. And your villification of salt and some other ingredients does not call to mind "casual".

Daniel Koontz said...

I villify, therefore I am!

No, seriously, I villify only to amuse. It helps the blog posts go down just a bit more smoothly.

And I have in fact considered two other names for this blog, including "Bitter Kitchen" and "OCD Kitchen," but they were both already taken. ;)


Anonymous said...

I like your tongue-in-cheek humor. Keep it coming!

I DO agree with anonymous re: being able to find more and more unusual ingredients in grocery stores these days. If you have a Wegmans, Trader Joes or Whole Foods near you, you'll know what I mean! But even the average grocery has a lot of variety: at my Pathmark I've found all kinds of fresh hot peppers, greens (collard and swiss chard and chinese cabbage), Asian cooking sauces (hoisin and oyster) and yes even saffron threads. :)

I agree that scraping a vanilla bean might be a time constraint and deal-breaker for me though.


Jim said...

I agree with anonymous about the almonds. I made it with almonds and it tasted great! I can't imagine leaving them out even though it increases the cost. (Use peanuts? No way!)

The advantage over boxed cereals is still that there is nothing you can't pronounce in there, which is a very good thing.

By the way, I calculated the calories in a 1/2 cup serving including almonds - about 290 calories, with 12g of fat, 41g carbs, in case anyone else besides me is counting.

Anonymous said...

I'm a pretty adventurous eater, but I never . . . and I mean ever . . . want to eat at a place called Anal Kitchen.

Daniel said...

As I re-read this post, years after I originally wrote it, I agree with you on "Anal Kitchen." That phrase did not age well.


Derek St. Romain said...

They sell vanilla beans by the each. So this is a definite easy recipe!