Piece of Cake Granola

I went to high school in Barrington, Illinois, a picturesque Chicago suburb about 45 minutes northwest of the city. It was a wonderful place to live--safe, lots of trees and friendly people, most of whom had crazy amounts of money and did things like take family ski trips to fancy mountain resorts over Christmas and jet off to beach homes for Spring break. In case you're wondering if I enjoyed such school break splendor, well, we went to visit my uncle in New Mexico one year. So close to Aspen, yet so far. Anyway.

Most of the kids who got to experience all of these fantastical, faraway outdoorsy places like Colorado is that they had (to me, then) the coo-hoo-lest sense of style. North Face catalog models, all of them. Spendy high-tech hiking boots, even though we were in flatter-than-flat Illinois. It actually made no sense. But then, oh, that was the look, people. And the girls who really rocked it did the hiking boots with perfectly worn jeans, fitted flannel shirts with lacy camisoles underneath, and glossy hair tied up in fabulously messy buns, sometimes held in place with only a pencil, a magical hairdo I just couldn't work with my endless, thick, heavy mane. But the best part about these girls was the irony--the clothing said Effortless Mountain Sex Kitten, but the face said Seventeen magazine--foundation, powder, eye liner, loads of mascara and lip gloss.

They were called the Maybelline Granolas. True story.

And ever since then, I can't think of the word granola without thinking about those girls. Even though it's already been, what, three years since I graduated high school? Ha. Ha-ha. HA. Yeah.

But this actual granola is the real deal, and could give the Maybelline Granolas a run for their eye liner money. For one, it is everything granola should be--earthy, wholesome, satisfying, the perfect balance of salty and sweet, and completely addictive. And ooh, it is ever pretty. Golden brown oats, creamy almonds, jade-colored pepitas and ruby-red dried cherries tucked into the mix like little jewels. This stuff is allll natural, baby. No cosmetic retouching required.

Piece of Cake Granola

This granola is my personal formula, my idea of granola perfection. But as long as you keep all the oats and maintain the proportions, you can swap out the seeds, nuts and fruits with whatever you have on hand. Pepitas (here I'm referring to raw, hulled pumpkin seeds) can be found in natural foods stores and most supermarkets if you ask for them. Keep an eye on the granola during the end of baking—it can burn quickly!

Makes about 5 cups

3 cups rolled oats (look for old-fashioned, not quick cooking)
1/4 cup pepitas
1/4 cup dry roasted sunflower seeds
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 cup dried cherries

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 12x17-inch baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.

In a large bowl, stir together the oats, pepitas and sunflower seeds.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the honey, oil, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, vanilla, and almond extract until homogenous and well-blended. Pour over the oat mixture and toss well to evenly moisten (clean hands are the most efficient tool here). Spread the mixture evenly on the prepared baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven, stirring the granola about every five minutes and rotating the baking pan occasionally. Stir in the sliced almonds 10 minutes into the baking time. The granola will be done when it is just beginning to turn golden brown and has lost most, but not all, of it's moist appearance, about 20 minutes. If you wait until it looks completely dry, you're on your way to burning it.

Let the granola cool on the baking sheet set on a wire rack. When the granola is completely cooled, stir in the dried cherries and store in an airtight container.

MiscellaneousShauna Sever