Thursday, February 5, 2015

Recipe: Low-Sugar Coconut Granola

As I've mentioned before, one of the ways Brian and I keep our grocery bill down is that we don't eat a lot of convenience foods. We almost never buy frozen meals or sides, aside from the occasional box of sale-priced pierogies (or pierogi, if you want to use the proper ethnic term). We eschew most packaged snack foods, preferring to nosh on fruit or pop our own popcorn. And of course, we don't have kids, so we don't have to buy special foods that they're willing to eat.

The only convenience food we haven't really found a way to do without is breakfast cereal, which is Brian's standard weekday breakfast. We usually buy raisin bran from Aldi, which is the only cereal that falls within our cutoff of 10 cents per ounce. Occasionally we can get a price this good or better by stacking sales and coupons, but most of the time, it's raisin bran Monday through Friday, which gets a little dull after a while. On top of that, Brian's a bit frustrated about all the packaging waste left behind from all those boxes of cereal. Yes, the cardboard boxes can go in our paper recycling, and we've recently discovered a Terracycle bin at a local church that will take the liners, but recycling is still only a distant third best to reducing and reusing.

The only homemade alternative we've found that's reasonably easy to make is granola. We used to use a recipe from the Tightwad Gazette, which I calculated to cost about $1.60 a pound (that's how we came up with our 10-cents-per-ounce benchmark for cereal costs). However, Brian doesn't really like it as well as the Aldi raisin bran, because it's too sweet for his taste even when cut with plain oats. It's also a bit of a hassle to make, because the mixture comes out really sticky. You have to keep stirring it as it cools to keep it from adhering to the pan, and even once it's completely cool, it has a tendency to form a single huge clump in the storage bin from which each day's serving has to be chipped off.

So earlier this week, Brian decided to try tinkering with the granola recipe to see if he could come up with something a bit less sweet and sticky. While he was at it, he cut down on the amount of oil in the original recipe and threw in some wheat bran to make it more healthful and filling. Here's what he did for his first small batch:
1 cup + 2 Tbsp    rolled oats
1/4 cup              chopped walnuts
1/4 cup              wheat bran
1/4 cup              light corn syrup (Karo red)
1 Tbsp                coconut oil
1/4 cup              raisins 
Combine first three ingredients in bowl.  Heat syrup and oil over medium heat until they boil; pour over dry mixture and mix thoroughly with a fork.  Spread in a pan and bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees F, stirring once at 10 minute mark. 
Remove from oven, add raisins, and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to prevent clumping or sticking.
This came out a lot less sticky than the original granola, and a lot less sweet. To my taste, in fact, it wasn't really sweet enough. He was considering adding a bit of honey to the mix, and I suggested throwing in some sweetened coconut to give it a little sugar boost. However, when he tried his first bowlful this morning, he said that he actually finds it quite sweet enough for a breakfast cereal—a bit sweeter than the raisin bran, in fact. So he might just keep the basic proportions as is, and maybe add a bit of unsweetened coconut and/or some of his favorite flaxseeds for a little extra flavor interest.

From an ecofrugal perspective, though, the real question is: how does this homemade alternative compare to the Aldi raisin bran in terms of cost per bowl? To figure this out, I checked the price per pound we usually pay for all these ingredients (guessing at the ones I didn't have any recent figures for) and calculated that this entire first batch of granola cost about $1.75 to make. That's the good news; the bad news is that it made only about two bowls' worth of breakfast. That works out to 88 cents a bowl, while Brian's usual breakfast of cereal plus add-ins, based on my calculations from last year's Reverse SNAP Challenge, is around 61 cents a bowl. (In fact, it's actually a little bit less now, because the price of the Aldi raisin bran has dropped.) So while Brian's new granola will cut down on packaging waste, it won't actually save us any money.

We may, of course, be able to tweak the recipe to cut its cost a bit. Those walnuts are a pricey ingredient (I calculated their cost based on what we usually pay per pound at the Whole Earth Center, not on the amazing bargain we got at last year's yard sale), so maybe we could substitute something cheaper, like some sunflower seeds or shredded coconut. And it might actually work out better to use some other sweetener in place of that corn syrup. But for now, I'm willing to pay the higher price of the homemade granola just for the sake of giving Brian a break from the raisin bran routine.
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