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« Getting Some Culture | Main | Chickpea Consolation »

The Lip Lady's Secret Granola



When somebody around me mentions Peruvian food, there are a lot of wonderful things that should pop into my mind. I could, for instance, think back to my first taste of tiradito, a refined take on ceviche that features nearly transparent slices of milky-white fish in an addictive chile-laced marinade. I could also remember Peruvian potatoes and their spectrum of shapes, sizes and colors, or the hot ears of corn with kernels the size of walnuts I would buy from the women who boarded trains in small villages, selling all manner of homemade snacks from large baskets. I could think about anticuchos, I suppose, the famous beef-heart kebabs I was too chicken to try, or the enormous Peruvian tamales stuffed with chicken, olives, raisins and hardboiled eggs. I could even think of sushi, considering I had some of the best of my life in Lima. But I don't. Embarrassing as it is to admit, my memories of Peruvian food are almost completely dominated by longings for the best granola I ever had.

I'll tell you the story. Seven years ago I went to Peru to conduct research for my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Although my main base was in the Andes (I was ostensibly researching Quechua language survival), I also did some traveling with an old friend whose visit to Peru happened to coincide with mine. As she had a particular interest in ruins, I agreed to accompany her on a long bus ride north to visit Chan Chan, the ancient mud city of the pre-Incan Chimu Empire. According to our guidebook, the best base for visiting the ruins was a sleepy little beach town a few miles away called Huanchaco.

Huanchaco was a nice enough place, quiet and easygoing by Peruvian standards, though it had gloomy overcast skies and the kind of lonely vibe of a beach resort off-season (it was the start of winter in the southern hemisphere). The guest house we chose, like the town itself, was also pretty dead; apart from us there was only a solitary Dutch backpacker and the owners, a local man, his petite French wife, and their toddler son who ran around waking everyone up with his screams at six o'clock each morning. The husband seemed perfectly nice on the one and only occasion we saw him; his wife, on the other hand, couldn't have been more unwelcoming if she tried. Not only did she watch our every move like a hawk, she complained about everything we did, from talking too loudly in the courtyard at night to not hanging our wet towels properly in our room. When she had nothing to complain about, she just glowered. And then there were her lips. I don't know if they had anything to do with her foul temperament, but they were at least three sizes too big; our speculations ranged from birth defect to Botox treatment gone wrong. In any case, though I'm fully understanding of the fact that hospitality is a tough business, that seeing different faces parade in and out every day can be exhausting and that any number of personal tragedies may have befallen her shortly before our arrival, this woman really should not have been let loose near paying customers. To us, at any rate, she was just plain hostile, and to exact our revenge (and, well, because she never told us her name) we started calling her the Lip Lady.

As much as we disliked her, though, I probably would have forgotten about the Lip Lady entirely in the intervening years—I mean, she wasn't that memorable—if it weren't for her granola. You see, apart from rooms, the guest house ran a casual café on its terrace, and along with the usual backpacker pizzas and omelettes they served the world's most delicious homemade granola. "What's in this granola?" I remember asking the young girl who waited the cafe's tables, but she had no idea. I could make out sliced almonds—or so I thought—bound together into light, crisp clusters with some sort of grain, but the rest was a mystery. I scrutinized it for days, trying to read its crumbly topography for clues, but in the end I realized there was only one way I was going to be able to reproduce this remarkable cereal at home. On the day of our departure, as I settled our bill, I took a deep breath, put on my brightest smile and asked the Lip Lady for the recipe.

To my complete surprise, she had only three words for me: "It's a secret."

Instantly I could feel panic swelling in my chest; I needed that recipe. "But it's the best granola I've ever had," I pleaded, searching her face for any shred of compassion. Surely she didn't think I was going to take her secret recipe and open up a competing café down the street, did she? I forced a smile again and said in my most polite Spanish, "Can't you just tell me the ingredients?"

She eyed me without expression for a long moment before shrugging. "I don't give away my recipes. All I can tell you is that I make it with oats, and that the recipe comes from Germany."

I was sorely tempted to grab her by her overgrown lips and shake the recipe out of her, but instead I paid my bill, cursing under my breath, and made a mental note of everything she had said. Surely if I looked long and hard enough I would eventually come across a recipe that yielded similar results... wouldn't I?

I didn't. For seven years I scoured every cookbook I ran across, spent hours typing search terms into google and quizzed every German I knew on their baked-cereal knowledge. I baked batch after batch of granola and tried every combination of ingredients and techniques imaginable, but none yielded exactly what I was looking for. There were plenty of good ones, of course, full of oaty wholesomeness and warm spice, but they were all lacking something, some elusive combination of flavor and texture I couldn't quite put my finger on. I started to question whether my perfect granola even existed. What if my memory had been playing tricks on me? What if Lip Lady's granola wasn't actually as good as I remembered it? What if I had romanticized it to the point where every granola I ate for the rest of my life would disappoint me?

But of course I wouldn't be telling you this story if it didn't have a happy ending. As it happened, one night a couple of weeks ago, on the fifth straight batch to come out of my oven in as many days, I finally cracked the code. It was a remarkably small thing that did it, actually—just a change in the type of oats I use—but it was enough; before it had even finished cooling I knew this was the one. I delivered a handful to Manuel to get a second opinion and was met with astonishment. "This is the best granola you've ever made," he exclaimed, and quickly inhaled half the batch. It certainly was, possessing every quality I have been trying to recreate for seven years: large, irregular clusters that retain their crunch to the bottom of the bowl; a light, crisp texture; a heady blend of vanilla and spice that conjures up oatmeal cookies and fragrant spice cakes. I'll be the first to admit it may not be an exact replica of the granola I tasted in Huanchaco—heck, even my tastebuds don't have that kind of memory—but knowing that actually makes it taste even better. It's my recipe, after all, not the Lip Lady's. And of course it's yours now too, because the last thing I would ever dream of doing is keep it to myself.

Seven-Year Granola

Okay, so what exactly makes this granola different? I'm no kitchen scientist, but I can point out the things that seem to have the biggest impact. One thing is the addition of oat flour, which helps the grains and nuts stick together into those much-coveted clusters. Another is the use of sugar; as much I like liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, they seem to produce a tougher, chewier granola. Finally, the right kind of oats are essential. For years I only baked with regular rolled ('old fashioned') oats because that's what recipes called for, but as soon as I switched to the smaller, thinner 'quick oats', the changes were remarkable—clusters formed, everything baked faster, and the texture became exquisitely light and crunchy. If you can't find quick oats where you live—and I have lived in a few places where oats come in one variety only—here's what I would do: pulse rolled oats in a food processor a few times to break them down to about half their original size. It won't be exactly the same but it will come close.
Yield: about 8 cups

1 lb. (450g) quick oats*
3 cups (750ml/about 300g) coarsely chopped raw nuts and/or seeds (I usually use a mixture of almonds, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds, but use whatever tickles your fancy)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
(or nutmeg)
1 cup, packed (200g) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (115g/1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (80ml) water
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
dried fruit, at your discretion

*if you're not familiar with the difference between quick and regular (also called 'old fashioned') rolled oats, take a look at the pictures here

Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. In a food processor, coffee grinder or blender, grind half the oats to a fine powder. In a large bowl, combine the whole oats, ground oats, nuts, seeds and spices. In a microwave-safe bowl (or in a saucepan over medium heat), combine the brown sugar, butter and water and heat just until the butter has melted and the mixture is bubbly. Stir the mixture together until smooth, then stir in the salt and vanilla. Pour this mixture over the oats and nuts, stirring well to coat (I usually do this with my hands). It should be uniformly moist - stir in another tablespoon or two of water if it isn't. Let stand for about ten minutes.

Spread the mixture out on a large baking sheet, separating it into irregular clumps with your fingers, and allowing space between the clumps for the hot air to circulate. Slide into the middle of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and stir, gently breaking up the mixture into small-to-medium sized clumps. Return to the oven and bake another 15 minutes or so before stirring again. Repeat the bake-and-stir until the mixture is a uniform golden brown and completely dry; this usually takes 1-1 1/2 hours. Cool completely, then stir in any dried fruit you want to use.

Store in a covered container at room temperature. Serve with milk or plain yogurt and fresh fruit as desired.


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Reader Comments (68)

I'm about to make my 2nd batch, I LOVED the first and gave some as Christmas gifts in wonderful old fashioned canning jars.
Today I'm trying a fat free version, I'll substitute apple sauce for the butter and apple cider for the liquid. For those allergic to tree nuts you can use pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. I'm making a double batch so I'm going to mix it up in a small trash bag, then there's no bowl or stock pot to wash!

January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHilly

I couldn't tell from your post when to add the spices. Should they just be mixed in with the oats? I just made a batch (forgetting the spices) and it was incredible, I can't wait to try it the correct way!

February 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHilary

Hilary - My goodness, I can't believe no one caught that omission until now! Actually it doesn't really matter when you add them - so long as you do it before baking! - but I've now put it in the first step, when the dry ingredients are mixed together. I'm glad you liked it without the spices, and hope you find it even better with. :)

February 7, 2009 | Registered Commentermelissa

This sounds delectable and I can't wait to make it. I have an "amateur" question for you -- how long does the granola keep in an airtight container?

PS: I'm also excited about trying your bolognese recipe.

Thx, AA

March 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlison A.

Hi, I noticed the post from "CLF" and thought I'd pick up on it in case anyone else is having similar problems; I think the fault lies in the use of "instant oats" instead of "quick oats". They are not usually suitable for substitution for quick oats, as they have been precooked (and sometimes have other additives), whereas the quick oats are simply normal oats rolled extra thin. Using instant oats in recipes calling for quick oats tends to result in them being severely overcooked & turning to mush!

Hope that helps!

I have yet to try making this granola, but I will do very soon... it sounds yummy.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMiss D

I’m a foodie and I love to try new recipes. I don’t repeat very often, so those that I repeat are the best of the best, and even they don’t get made a lot. And I used to be very free about sharing recipes, until I noticed that many people I shared with labeled it “their” recipe. I’d hear friends of theirs clamor on for them to please make “Jenny’s Fabulous Blueberry Muffins” or “Tom’s Out-Of-This-World Seafood Stew.” This started to make me mad. Really it’s the same people who over and over again ask for recipes. And if they aren’t going to give me credit for finding them in the first place, then I could really care less about sharing recipes that are free to begin with. I’m not creating my own recipes, and they have access to all the same books I use. So there. I’ve become a stingy old hag who doesn’t share her recipes. But I just had to share my story because – not that I agree with this woman not sharing her granola – there is a flip side to someone who doesn’t share.

March 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStingy with my recipes

Wow wow wow!! I just made my 1st batch and it is a flavor burst of goodness in my mouth!! I will definately make this again. I love the spices... Thanks for taking the time to figure out the lip lady's recipe!

April 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

Is it possible that the original recipe contained quinoa, a popular peruvian pseudo-cereal?

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZ

Wow, awesome! I made this as I have been putting off cooking granola as I don't remember which recipe was my favorite and *now* I have this one to highlight in my fav list! I didn't play with spices or anything other than mixing hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and almonds for the nut portion... post thanksgiving loads of nut options! I didn't think it was "proper" of me to change the recipe on my first try since it took you 7 years to come to this creation!! I am looking forward to it cooling and me adding it to my homemade yogurt for breakfast. Thank you!!!

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJG

I just moved to Germany, and have found plenty of oats but am confused as to which are the "quick" kind. Have you found them here, and if so, how are they labeled? Thanks!

p.s. Love the story!

Quick oats are the ones labeled 'zart', while the old-fashioned type are labeled 'kernig'. Most places sell them both. -m

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLAA

I've made this a few times and love the way my kitchen smells afterwards. this stuff is like crack. the 'nuts' I use are generally sesame seeds, shredded coconut, and pecans. reduced the butter a bit and also use some ground flaxseed. my only complaint is that it takes a while to make so I only make it on special occasions or as a gift, but I don't run nearly enough to keep this stuff around all the time anyway ;]

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteremily

Will definitely try this.

Just a note: I was confused at first by your reference to "quick oats" and wondered if maybe I can't get them here - but I'm in Scotland, the Home of Oats, so that couldn't be. I studied the pictures on the Cook's Thesaurus link and concluded that the oats I have are in fact "quick oats" - but here they are sold as just "rolled oats", and the thick ones you call "rolled oats" are sold here as "jumbo oats".

Hope this helps any other confused Scottish readers - and other UK readers, as I suspect this is the same UK-wide.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterheartlandroad

I have to share my story. My son walked into my house and said, "Dad what smells so good." I said that I had just made some granola. He asked he could have some. He ate a few pieces. Then he got a bowl and some milk and ate some more. When he was done he said, "Dad, that was the best I've ever had. That's not the best granola I've ever had. That's the best cereal I've ever had!"

I did change the recipe a little. I didn't put in any nuts. I was trying to keep the calories down a bit. I doubled all the spices. The first couple of times I made this I left out the cardamon because I didn't have it in the house. I finally found it for a reasonable price at a bulk food store. It certainly adds a nice flavor to the granola. If you've been leaving this out because you don't have the spice, please do yourself a favor a go get some. The spice is expensive in a regular store, but I found it it a Sunflower store very reasonable in the bulk food spice section.

Thanks for all your efforts to perfect the recipe. I've made it several times.

BTW, my son came over and learned how to make the granola so he could make it when he went away to college. It helps that it is so easy to make!

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlen

This recipe is incredible! I adore big clumps of granola but can never seem to get it to work when I make it at home. This, however, turned out perfectly. I also loved the cardamom - unexpected but delicious x

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

What a great story :)
Thankyou for sharing it and your recipe. I came across your site by accident but I now feel the need to make this ' quirky history' granola AND subscribe to your posts. :)

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

Thank you!!! Got rave reviews with your granola recipe. Perfect crunch, perfect little nuggets, lovely flavor!

I followed the recipe fairly closely, but replaced some of the oat flour with ground flax and wheat germ because I had them to use, and used regular oats because that's what I had. Used slivered almonds, chopped pecans, and coconut for my nut mixture.


March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

So far it's good raw. Almost ready to pop in the oven. Ok outta the oven, cooled and I added craisins, apricots and pineapple. It is spot on yummy, my daughter is also in agreement. Another keeper. Looking forward to trying so of your other recipes.

May 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter1wayin

If this works, I'll be loving you forever. I'm also a liquid sugar girl, but will try this refined sugar you speak of...and shall grind my groats into flour for a little extra sticking power if necessary! Thank you!

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

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