On days when I don’t feel like cooking, we eat — quite happily, I might add — cold cereal for dinner. Cold cereal is, in my opinion, a near-perfect food. (Nutritionists, I’m not talking to you. I know the only actual perfect food is ice cream.) It requires no prep except pouring in a bowl and nothing else besides milk, a spoon and my mouth.
Perhaps cereal is so comforting because it’s one of the first solid foods we’re fed as babies: soft rice cereal mixed with milk or easily graspable toasted oat nubbins to nibble on once we’ve got a tooth or two. Growing up, I had cold cereal a few times a week, though my mother would only allow “healthy” cereals into the house, like Grape Nuts, Raisin Bran or plain Cheerios. I begged — begged! — my mother to buy Honey Nut Cheerios when the variety was introduced in 1979 and she only relented after months of whining. Once a year, however, I got to pick one box of whatever sugared-up cereal I wanted: Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms or Corn Pops. It was hard to decide because I loved them all with a white-hot passion. I still do.
However, I’ve ended up following my mother’s footsteps with regards to which cereals I’ll keep in the house. At the moment, I’ve got Cheerios and Raisin Bran, just like I grew up with. I indulged myself this morning with a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, which still feels a little transgressive, like I’m getting away with something naughty. I push the envelope in small ways.
I’ve found that cold cereal is a relatively effective antidote for my insomnia. When the woes of the world lay heavy on my addled mind and my lidless, staring eyes are like two skinned grapes, I creep downstairs and pour myself a bowl of vitamin-fortified solace. I read a book and munch my lightly processed, grain-based treat. Twenty minutes later, my head is nodding. Maybe it’s the amino acid tryptophan in the milk or maybe it’s the pleasant way that the cereal settles in my stomach, not too heavy but filling enough to satisfy me.
This morning, as I was standing in front of the pantry, eyeing our beautiful lineup of cereal boxes, it occurred to me that I’ve never made no-bake cereal bars. This month seems an opportune time to give it a go, since we’re settling into the warmest stretch of summer and I am loathe to use my oven.
I wanted to make a cereal bar with Cheerios, since that’s what I’ve got, and I didn’t want bars that were too sweet. I was aiming for a sweet-salty combination with interesting mix-ins that would put these cereal bars a couple notches above traditional crispy rice treats, which can be cloying and visually uninspiring. I found a recipe for pretzel-peanut-Cheerios bars which looked easy enough. But of course, I can never leave well enough alone so I added several twists of my own. I appreciate that the recipe doesn’t make too many bars. The last thing I need is enough cereal bars to feed a mastodon, because I will be that mastodon.
Before you get started, thoroughly grease an 8-by-8-inch baking dish to keep the bars from sticking to the bottom. Many cereal bar recipes recommend lining the pan with parchment paper or foil, but I just used a lot of butter and the bars popped out easy-peasy. You’ll also want to have all the ingredients lined up and ready to go because when it’s time to mix the cereal into the butter-marshmallow coating, you don’t want to dawdle, or the coating will solidify and become too gooey to work with.
In a bowl, combine 1½ cups plain Cheerios or any brand of toasted oat cereal. If you want sweeter bars, you can use Honey Nut Cheerios, Peanut Butter Cheerios or Chocolate Cheerios. If you’re not a fan of oat cereals, use Corn Chex, Rice Chex, Crispix or Life. Then add ¼ cup salted pretzels, ¼ cup salted peanuts and ¼ cup of any (or several) of the following mix-ins: dried blueberries, dried cherries, dried cranberries, raisins, crystallized ginger, crushed banana chips, coconut flakes, freeze-dried strawberries or raspberries, almond slivers, cashews, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, dried pineapple, dried mango pieces, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, peanut butter chips or extra mini-marshmallows. For my bars, I used dried blueberries, crushed banana chips, pecans, mini chocolate chips and mini-marshmallows. The total measurement of mix-ins, including the pretzels and peanuts, shouldn’t exceed 2 cups. If you have too many ingredients, there won’t be enough sauce to cover everything and hold the bars together.
Melt half a stick of butter (that’s 4 tablespoons) in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Let it bubble for about three or four minutes until it starts to turn a dark nut-brown, then mix in a heaping 1½ cups mini-marshmallows with 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon almond extract and ½ teaspoon cinnamon. You can leave out the almond extract and cinnamon if you want, but in my view, they’re what make these bars so delicious. Also, don’t try to use old, stale marshmallows, like I did, because they won’t melt and you’ll have to start all over. Stale marshmallows are simply too dehydrated to melt properly, so splash out and get a bag of fresh, squishy ’mallows.
It should take about two minutes for the fresh marshmallows to completely melt into the butter. Keep stirring so it doesn’t burn on the bottom. When all the marshmallows have dissolved, remove the sauce from the heat and allow it to cool for five minutes. Pour it over your cereal and other ingredients. Use a stiff spatula to scrape out every last drop.
Now use the spatula to scoop the cereal into your buttered baking dish so it’s evenly distributed. Press it down firmly with your fingers, getting it into all the corners and making it as level as possible. Allow it to cool completely before slicing into bars; my bars didn’t firm up all the way until I put them in the fridge for a few hours, and that made them much easier to cut.
Can you eat these cereal bars for dinner? Of course you can. Will they cure your insomnia? Not likely, but you’ll have fun trying.