Paralysis is what I experienced through most of my PhD. Paralysis is what I've fought so hard to overcome. And paralysis is what struck me again this weekend. Unexpectedly, but undeniably.
I had a meeting about my PhD this weekend. A meeting I'd been dreading for a long time, but that I knew needed to happen. I'd expected it to be hard, but I'd also expected it to bring closure from everything that has been holding me back. What I received, however, was the opposite: the blunt announcement that closure, at this point, was impossible. I felt ambushed. Ill-treated. Angry. Yet, by the time I got home, all that was left was the feeling of defeat. Paralysis.
I'd forgotten what it was like to feel utterly incapable of doing anything. I'd forgotten how all-encompassing the feeling could be. What I did remember, though, was how much baking had already helped me work through it. At times of sadness and defeat, baking has often offered me something to focus on and, more importantly, provided me with a sense of accomplishment, no matter how tiny. It has never taken away the sadness itself, but it has always offered refuge. In the long run, I know, baking something, no matter what, makes a difference.
Of course, the true challenge is not the baking itself, but simply taking the first step. Moving. Picking myself up. Forcing myself to do something when that is exactly what seems so impossible. At times like that, there's no room for intricate recipes or new experiments. What I need is something small, simple, familiar. This weekend, granola seemed like a particularly good place to start. Involving little more than melting butter, measuring sugar and chopping nuts, it was easy enough to oversee, while the result would last long enough to remind me of this tiny victory for days or even weeks. When performed slowly and deliberately, moreover, the task of chopping nuts seemed like a perfect way to vent frustrations and find a sense of calm. Repetitive and slightly destructive. An action that allows one to zone out.
I admit that, after I took my granola out of the oven and burnt my tongue on the hot oats, I returned to the couch, hid underneath a blanket and halfheartedly watched reality tv. Granola doesn't resolve everything. Yet, at the end of the day, knowing that I had actually made something, despite of the feelings of paralysis and defeat, and realizing that the warm smell of toasted nuts had imbued me with a sense of happiness, if only for a moment, offered relief. The next day, that relief brought trust. By now, it has grown into a willingness to fight. Baking doesn't resolve everything, but it helps.
• This recipe, as most granola recipes, is a mash-up between several existing recipes and my own preferences with regards to nuts and other toppings. I cite Shutterbean's "Killer Granola" as the primary source because that's where I first got the idea to caramelize the walnuts, which is a crucial step in this recipe and the one that really takes this granola to a higher level. I decided to also caramelize the cashews, because if there's anything I like more than cashews, it's caramelized cashews.
• Just like I did, you could easily adapt the recipe to match your own preferences. Feel free to swap the walnuts for pecans if that's what you like or have on hand, or add some of your favorite seeds instead of the cacao nibs. Just keep an eye on the balance between oats, nuts, fat and sugar.
• Cacao nibs are not a common ingredient here in Belgium, but they are super tasty. These tiny pieces of cacao bean can be found in health stores and bio markets.
• This granola is delicious when paired with Greek yoghurt and fresh fruit or as a topping on your favorite ice cream. It's also great to snack on straight from the jar.
Walnut & Cacao Nib Granola
adapted from Shutterbean
makes enough for a 1 liter jar
140 gr rolled oats
75 gr almonds, coarsely chopped
50 gr unsalted butter
pinch of salt
120 gr walnuts, coarsely chopped
75 gr cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
50 gr dark brown sugar
2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
60 gr cacao nibs
1. Preheat oven to 160°C. Line a high-rimmed baking sheet with a baking mat or parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, combine oats and almonds.
3. In a large pan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add salt, walnuts and cashews and stir to coat all pieces with butter. Cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until lightly toasted. Add brown sugar and honey and stir to combine. Allow to cook for a few extra minutes, until sugar is melted and nuts are slightly caramelized. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract.
4. Add caramelized nut mixture, including all fluids, to the oat-almond mixture. Toss until the oats are evenly coated.
5. Spread the granola evenly on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes. Halfway through the baking time, remove the baking sheet from the oven and stir to redistribute the granola. Return to the oven until the granola is golden brown and toasted.
6. Let cool completely on the baking sheet, then stir in the cacao nibs. Store in an airtight container.