Energy bars, power bars, protein bars, granola bars. Whatever you call them, they've taken over entire aisles in supermarkets.
When it comes to nutrition, some of them are little better for you than a store-bought cookie, with an ingredient list that would make a Keebler elf blanch.
It's so easy to make these things at home, where you can control the ingredients, mix and match to your liking and store them for a week, ready whenever you have a hankering.
Just about every whole-foods-oriented cookbook I've seen in the past year or so has included a bar, so I've been trying recipes and returning to the best ones. I've settled on three standbys, each of which satisfies a particular craving or need.
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My favorite bars are variations on a common theme: grains, nuts and/or fruit bound together with something sticky, with minimal (if any) added sweetener. The most stripped-down of the ones I've loved are Susanna Booth's Peanut Snack Bars in her "Sensationally Sugar Free" (Hamlyn, 2016), which live up to the promise of the book's title. They're barely more than figs, nuts and seeds, with a little peanut butter and a little flour, and they come together as easily as a food-processor pie dough. If this is what the raw-food movement is all about, I need to leave my oven off more often.
The Chewy Cranberry, Millet and Pistachio Bars in Emma Galloway's delightful "My Darling Lemon Thyme" (Roost Books, 2015) don't see the heat of an oven, either. But you do quickly boil the liquid ingredients – brown rice syrup or honey, coconut oil and tahini – before pouring the combination over a bowl of puffed millet, dried cranberries and pistachios. Puffed millet was a revelation: a health-food-store staple that turns a whole grain from something hearty into something light and crispy. These taste like an adult version of Rice Krispies treats.
Ella Woodward's Banana Breakfast Bars are a little cakier, and prepared more conventionally: You mash up ripe bananas and mix them with oats, almond milk, a little cashew butter, honey and seasoning, then bake them briefly. They're a cross between a muffin and a granola bar, just the thing you’d grab for a quick morning snack. Spread with more nut butter and some jam, eat with yogurt and fruit, and you're on your way to a meal.
Banana Breakfast Bars
Adapted from “Deliciously Ella Every Day,” by Ella Woodward (Scribner, 2016).
Coconut oil or cooking oil spray
2 large or 3 small very ripe bananas, sliced (about 1 cup)
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
Scant 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tablespoons cashew butter
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 9-by-6-inch baking dish with coconut oil or spray.
Use a fork to mash the bananas in a mixing bowl until smooth. Stir in the rolled oats, almond milk, cashew butter, cinnamon, honey, vanilla extract and salt until well incorporated.
Spoon into the baking dish, flattening and smoothing the surface. Bake 12 to 14 minutes or until evenly firm to the touch.
Cool in the baking dish completely before cutting into bars.
Per bar: 130 calories, 3 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Yield: 10 bars
Chewy Cranberry, Millet and Pistachio Bars
Adapted from “My Darling Lemon Thyme,” by Emma Galloway (Roost Books, 2015).
2 1/2 cups puffed millet (or puffed rice)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup shelled raw, unsalted pistachios, chopped
1/2 cup brown rice syrup or 1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup tahini
3 tablespoons coconut oil
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grease a 11-by-7-inch baking pan with cooking oil spray, then line it with parchment paper.
Combine the millet, cranberries and pistachios in a heatproof mixing bowl, stirring to incorporate.
Combine the brown rice syrup or honey, tahini, coconut oil and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat; once the mixture starts to bubble around the edges, start stirring to prevent sticking. Cook 45 seconds, then remove from the heat.
Quickly stir in the vanilla extract, then pour the syrup mixture over the millet mixture.
Mix well and transfer to the pan, pressing down evenly with the back of an oiled spoon to compact the mixture. Cool, then cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours or until set before using a lightly oiled knife to cut the slab into 14 equal bars.
Per bar (using brown rice syrup): 150 calories, 3 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar
Yield: 14 bars
Peanut Snack Bars
Adapted from “Sensationally Sugar Free,” by Susanna Booth (Hamlyn, 2016).
7 ounces soft dried figs (about 1 cup packed)
Scant 1/2 cup unsweetened crunchy peanut butter
1/4 cup hulled, toasted or roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds
1/3 cup hulled, raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 teaspoons water
Discard the tough stem at the top of each dried fig. Place the fruit in a food processor along with the peanut butter, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flour, salt, sunflower oil and water; pulse long enough to create a mixture that has the texture of fine crumbs, which should hold together when firmly pressed.
Press or roll the mixture on a counter, between layers of parchment paper, to a thickness of about 1/2 inch: A rectangle about 7-by-6-inches is perfect. If there are cracks, press the dough more firmly. Cut into 12 equal slices.
Per bar: 180 calories, 5 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
Yield: 12 bars