During the winter I was busy rehearsing for a play. Sometimes I had rehearsals four nights a week and in between I was studying the script, memorizing blocking, and scouring thrift shops for bits of my costume. The play ran for five nights and after the last show we celebrated with a midnight dinner in the theater’s restaurant, the cast and crew and our friends sitting at a long table that stretched the width of the otherwise empty dining room.
Then the adventure was over and I was left with 12 or 15 hours unspoken for every week. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Any more time reading than I already spend could jeopardize my eyesight, the spring weather was still iffy enough to discourage long walks, and my balcony herb garden really doesn’t need to be watered more than every other day or so.
Naturally, my mind turned to cooking. Though there are only so many meals one can eat in a day, I realized that we were buying a number of processed foods that I could start making from scratch.
I made exemptions for pasta (we had at least 5 kilos in the pantry) and hard cheese, but all the other processed staples we buy regularly – cereal, yogurt, ricotta, bread, jam – I decided to learn how to make myself.
So I spent a month or two churning out bowls of whole-milk yogurt and sweet, soft mounds of ricotta. Then I’d use the whey from the ricotta to replace the water in this excellent sandwich bread recipe, which I baked a couple times a week (modifying it to make one loaf, halving the amount of sweetener, and replacing it with maple syrup).
It was a pretty good system, but it was also lot of hassle and – as anyone who’s ever scrubbed scorched milk off the bottom of a pot knows – it all made a damn mess. The final straw came when I was grocery shopping in France. It takes 30 minutes and a bus transfer to get there, but it’s infinitely better than grocery shopping in Geneva. Walking through the yogurt aisle, which rivals the meat section for square footage, I realized that making homemade yogurt in a place where you can buy the best was ridiculous and I didn’t want to do it anymore. And the same went for bread.
There’s one thing I’m not planning to go back on, though, and that’s homemade granola. It makes the house smell like heaven, lasts for weeks without going stale, and just dirties one dish. But it only takes an hour – so I’m back to the question of how to spend my free time.
I’m curious, if you had a year off to do as you pleased, how would you occupy yourself?
The proportions of this recipe are important. Everything else – the type of nuts and seeds, the spices, the choice of fat and sweeter – can be modified to your taste. Sometimes I season a batch of granola with the caviar from a vanilla bean (just mix it into the oil before combining it with the dry ingredients). The vanilla bean flecks end up in the milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl, which makes it feel sort of like you’re eating a bowl of melted ice cream for breakfast.
4 1/4 oats quick cooking oats
2 1/2 cups nuts and seeds (I like 1 part flax seeds, 1 part pumpkin seeds, 2 parts sunflower seeds, 2 parts chopped almonds)
1 scant teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/3 cup + 2 T olive oil (or a very very scant 1/2 cup; the measurements are wonky since I’m converting them from metric)
1/3 cup + 2 T maple syrup or honey
1 cup chopped dried fruit, optional
Preheat the oven to 300F and line a large rimmed baking sheet (or jelly roll pan) with parchment paper.
Place all the dry ingredients in a big bowl and mix. Add the oil and sweetener, then mix with a wooden spoon til thoroughly combined.
Spread in a thin layer on the parchment paper and put in the oven. Every ten minutes, take the granola out and stir. Bake til deeply golden, about 40 minutes.
After the granola has cooled, stir in the dried fruit and transfer to a storage container. It will keep for a couple of weeks.