Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Homemade pecan pie Larabars (fruit & nut bars)

That was one terrific weekend, if I may say so.  How was your Valentine's Day/Presidents' Day weekend?  Sweet?  Spicy?  Patriotic, thanks to an economy-stimulating shopping trip to take advantage of sales?  Mine was all of the above, and extra special, because one of my best friends visited us for the weekend!

Rachel and I met early in college and lived together for three memorable years before she moved away for grad school and eventually settled in Los Angeles with her husband.  Though we're over 2,400 miles apart, we made a pact to see each other at least once a year.  Sometimes I go there, other times we meet somewhere in the middle like Las Vegas.  This time, however, Rachel came back to Pittsburgh!

Since she called Pittsburgh home for four years, we took a different approach planning her visit.  Standard first-timer attractions experienced long ago held little appeal.  Rach had tried and true favorite places around town and knew what she wanted to do.  Near the top of that list was a snowy Friday night walk to Dave & Andy's for birthday cake ice cream.  California climate may have lowered her tolerance for cold weather, but it didn't diminish her craving for ice cream, no matter what :)

That being said, we tried to stay inside as much as possible, which made both of us feel like we lived together once again.   We cooked, bummed around, watched movies, and stayed up late just talking.  We did make it out for lunch one day, a fancy dinner the next, a visit to my parents' house, and (of course) a shopping trip.

Rachel and I have a history of epic shopping trips.  They weren't necessarily epic in the amount of money spent, but rather how long they lasted.  It wasn't uncommon to spend a good 8 hours out at a nearby shopping destination.  Even with a break for lunch, we always stopped for snacks.

"Everyone snacks when they shop," once proclaimed Rachel Green of Friends fame.  So true.  The most frequent munchies were Mint Milanos, Rice Krispie treats, and Ghiradelli chocolate squares (always from Michael's Craft Stores -- those displays near the checkout are no joke!).  They weren't exactly the healthiest choices, but they fit the bill when we "needed" something sweet.

Knowing we would a) surely get hungry and crave something sugary, and b) be heading out for ice cream later that evening, I looked two bites steps ahead and made us a portable snack that would satisfy our sweet tooth: homemade Larabars!

If you aren't familiar with Larabars, they're delicious all-natural fruit and nut bars made with fewer ingredients than you have fingers on one hand.  For example, a cherry pie Larabar contains dried dates, dried cherries, and almonds.  That's it.  No preservatives, added sugar, or hard-to-pronounce ingredients.  Amazing, right?  I was introduced to Larabars thanks to some race swag and quickly fell head over heels in love with them and turned Rachel onto them shortly thereafter, too.

For skeptics and anyone who turned up his or her nose at the idea of dried dates, hear me out.  Dried dates are a chewy and super sweet fruit -- sweeter than raisins, if you can believe it -- that also act as a binder to hold the bars together.

When combined with pecans and almonds, a splash of vanilla, and a pinch of salt, these date and nut bars taste just like pecan pie!  That's worth repeating: just like pecan pie.  At first, I couldn't believe my taste buds, but I knew I liked what I was tasting, so I kept biting and chewing.

These homemade Larabars are totally delicious, not to mention addictive, which is a very good thing considering how good these are for ya.  Natural sugars and fiber from the fruit, protein and healthy fats from the nuts, think of these bars as more portable versions of trail mix.

Grab one to squash mid-afternoon hunger or after a long run when a full meal isn't in the near future.  Or stash one in your purse as you head out for a marathon shopping spree.  You'll rejoice when you remember it's there after vowing not to leave the fitting room until you found a pair of jeans that fits perfectly.  After all, nobody's got time for a cranky mood or sugar low when there's quality denim to be had.

One year ago: M&M cookies
Two years ago: Grilled balsamic chicken
Three years ago: Rosemary garlic chicken burgers
Four years ago: Olive oil bread

Homemade Pecan Pie Larabars / Fruit & Nut Bars
-makes 6 bars

A few notes: Feel free to play with these ratios to create whatever Larabar you like.  The general rule is 1 cup of dried fruit and 1 cup of nuts.  Dried cherries, blueberries, apples, and apricots are just a few ideas for the fruit portion.  Almonds, walnuts, pecans, salted peanuts, and cashews are a few of the nuts you could use.  For an extra treat, add mini chocolate chips or shredded coconut.

1 generous cup dried dates, pits removed
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cup almonds
Pinch sea salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In the bowl of a food processor, combine dates, nuts, salt, and vanilla and process until very finely ground, roughly 1 minute.  Press into parchment paper-lined 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and flatten.  Cut into 6 equal size bars and individually wrap in parchment paper secured with string or in plastic wrap.  Store in plastic bags or airtight container in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

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