Sunday, January 30, 2011

Muesli: Breakfast Powerhouse

I’ve eaten cereal and milk for breakfast nearly every day for the past 45 years. As breakfasts go cereal is particularly serviceable, especially when a day’s work lies ahead and I don’t have much time. Preparation is quick and undemanding, and the combination of protein from the milk and carbohydrates from the cereal lays a nutritious foundation for the remainder of the day.

There's powerful stuff in that bowl.

As an American kid growing up in the 1960s, I opted for high-sugar cereals like Frosted Flakes, Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops, which I ate happily and without question. In my 20s and 30s, as my awareness of good nutrition grew, I turned to healthier packaged cereals like those from Kashi and Nature’s Path. They’re still good choices, but now I’m in my 50s and I expect (and need) even more from my breakfast cereal.

In a nutshell I want: high fiber, low fat, low sugar, low sodium, and all natural ingredients that don’t have long chemical names. Oh, and it should taste good too. Packaged cereals with these specs are available, but after a while I found myself regularly turning to the same three or four, which got boring. Then one day I was perusing a book called Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce (highly recommended if you’re interested in whole-grain baking), and spotted a recipe for muesli that changed my thinking about breakfast cereal.  

Broadly speaking, muesli is a mixture of oats or other raw grains, fruit and/or dried fruit, and nuts. Muesli is similar to granola, but there are differences. Granola is usually baked and contains vegetable oil and a fair amount of added sugar, such as honey or brown sugar. Muesli tends to be uncooked with no added sugar. The only fat in muesli is from the nuts and grains.

I started with the recipe from Good to the Grain but pretty soon my wife became interested, and we added this and that until we had a cereal more to our liking (see recipe below). Which leads to the next point: the ingredients and proportions are extremely flexible. If you can’t find thick-cut oats, use all regular oats. Substitute barley flakes or wheat flakes for part of the oats or rye. Leave out the quinoa. Use whatever nuts and dried fruits you like best or have on hand. Experiment until you find the balance of grains, nuts, and fruits you like best, or make every batch different.

I eat muesli like any other cereal: plop it in a bowl and pour milk over it. My wife soaks her serving of muesli overnight in fruit juice or milk to soften it, adding a large spoonful of yogurt right before eating. I can see how the raw grains might be too chewy for some, so if that’s the case you’ll probably prefer the softer, soaked version. Muesli can also be cooked like oatmeal to soften it even further.

You've probably guessed that muesli is an exceptionally healthy food. It’s an excellent source of soluble and insoluble fiber, whole grains, and healthy fats. It’s lactose-free, suitable for vegans, and can easily be made gluten-free or nut-free. Muesli is good for those trying to lower cholesterol, keep blood sugar levels steady, or increase their intake of dietary fiber. Basically it's everything I’m looking for in a breakfast cereal, with an earthy, honest flavor I don't get tired of.

If you want to find out more about the nutritional benefits of muesli, here’s a link to an excellent article with additional recipes:

About 18 servings, 2/3 cup each

3 cups thick-cut oats (not Scotch oats)
3 cups regular oats
1 cup rye flakes
1/2 cup quinoa flakes
1/4 cup flaxseeds
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup wheat bran
2 cups almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, or a combination,

     raw or toasted, coarsely chopped
1 cup raisins, dark or golden
1 cup dried cherries, dried cranberries or other dried fruit,

     chopped if necessary
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut, raw or toasted
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Store in airtight containers at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Will keep two weeks at room temperature, a month or more if refrigerated.

For each serving
Place 2/3 cup muesli in a bowl. Top with yogurt, milk, cream, soy milk, rice milk, or fruit juice as desired. Eat right away or let sit for several minutes to soften. (Alternatively, top with milk or juice then refrigerate overnight.) Top with fresh fruit, and honey or maple syrup if you’re inclined.

To toast nuts
Spread nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350º F. for 12-17 minutes, or until the nuts darken slightly. Stir once or twice during baking. Let cool, then chop and mix with the other ingredients.

To toast coconut
Spread coconut in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350º F. for 5-8 minutes, or until very light brown. Stir once or twice during baking. Coconut burns easily so check it frequently while it’s in the oven. Let cool before adding to the other ingredients.

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