In the quiet wake of Valentine’s Day, I have been thinking about the curious connection between food and love. “Curious” not because it is strange or unusual — in fact, it is among the most tenacious and universal of human bonds — but because, despite its ubiquity, we have such funny ideas of how to express it. Popular culture only confuses the matter, encouraging us to communicate our love via everything from candy hearts to oysters, and boxed chocolates to steak-and-cabernet dinners by candlelight.
Love and nourishment are linked from Day One for most of us, fed as newborns by a smitten (if exhausted) parent. But within a year or two, that safe, intimate exchange is replaced by a vast network of total strangers — farmers, field laborers, harvesters, packagers, transporters, retailers, corporate wonks, cooks and food-service workers, to name a few — each of whom plays a role in getting food onto our plates.
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s bizarre that we do this. Every day, we trustingly consume food that comes to us from humans whom we might think of as adversaries or even enemies if we knew their political or social views. And even the simple act of inviting friends over for a homemade dinner has no equivalent in the animal world. Biological anthropologists have long recognized that non-kin food sharing is a hallmark of humanity.
Yet on we go, celebrating the intuitive connection between food and love — not just on Valentine’s Day, but throughout the year. Because despite the complexities of our food system, it is possible to invest food with genuine love and care. We cook for the people we love, and show love, affection and gratitude through food, and over food.
Which brings me to Peter, my husband of nearly a quarter-century. He loves chocolate; I love him. And so, for his birthday and other red-letter days, I’ve usually made him some kind of rich and decadent chocolate dessert. But we are both starting to get long in the tooth, and to notice the unfortunate impact of that richness and decadence.
Peter also loves hiking. Every afternoon, no matter what, he’ll head deep into the woods, often not returning until after it’s pitch black outside. “There is no bad weather, only bad gear,” he’ll say before lacing up his boots and setting forth on a day when the thermometer has dipped below zero. On such days, his backpack includes a thermos of hot chicken broth along with his usual granola bar.
I’ve written in the past about my search for a good granola bar recipe. Some years back, I found a great one for a chewy bar, and tweaked it to suit my youngest son’s tastes. Last week, I went looking for a recipe for a crispy granola bar recipe that would travel well in a backpack. I found one, but the first batch was a disappointment — so hard you had to gnaw on it or soak it in coffee to make it palatable. Undaunted, I made a few adjustments, one of which resulted in loose crumbles — granola, not bar.
At last I came up with the one included here. It’s got a nice mix of flavors, from the dark chocolate, cherries and pecans, and an intriguing depth thanks to the molasses and cinnamon. And best of all, Peter likes it, so now he can carry a little bit of my love with him wherever he may wander.
Chocolate-Pecan Granola Bars
- ¼ cup coconut oil or melted butter
- 2 cups rolled oats
- ½ cup pecans
- ½ cup flaxseed meal
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate chips
- 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 3 dates, finely chopped
- ½ cup honey
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ½ cup dried cherries, optional
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a non-stick baking mat. In a large bowl, toss together the melted coconut oil or butter, oats and pecans. Spread on the baking sheet (don’t rinse out the bowl) and toast in the oven until the oats begin to smell nutty, about 8 minutes, tossing the oat mixture halfway through.
Reduce the oven heat to 300 degrees. Transfer oat mixture back into the bowl, setting aside the baking sheet. Add the flaxseed meal, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt, and mix well to combine. Stir in the chopped dates (you may need to work them into the dry ingredients with your fingers).
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the honey to a boil, then allow it to boil for 4½ minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the molasses and vanilla. Pour over the dry ingredients, stirring until evenly mixed. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then stir in the chocolate and dried cherries.
Spread the mixture on the prepared baking sheet, pressing down firmly so that it feels compact. It may not fill the whole sheet; if not, use a butter knife or bench scraper to press the edges straight. Cut the mixture into bars, then transfer to the oven and bake 18 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool, then break into bars.
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