(Recipe for granola cookies at the end of this post)
Blue Mountains, part of our Great Dividing Range and the stuff of pioneering Australian stories. It’s particularly famous for the Three Sisters – a rock formation that attracts all kinds of tourists to the town of Katoomba. Since it is a 1-2 hour drive or a train ride out of Sydney, it has long been a place for Sydneysiders to spend a weekend, a few days or even weeks, unwinding, remembering a slower pace of life.
It is also one of the places that are in danger from bushfires every year, during the annual October to March ‘bushfire season’.
This year, the bushfires have started early around Sydney and in the Blue Mountains. Thursday afternoon saw Sydney’s famous blue sky turn an ominous orange-yellow from the smoke – even this morning, our cityscape looked unnaturally sepia, as though we woke up in the world of Instagram. A colleague who has a house in the lower Blue Mountains is at home soaking their house with water, and having the rural fire service doing back burning just outside of their backyard. Gulp. Anyone who has driven around rural Australia has probably seen the hectares of black tree stumps, running over hills and down into valleys to the edges of rivers, and also hectares of living trees with trunks and branches blackened by fire.
But after each fire, the bush regenerates – and some plants have evolved to do so. The black stumps grow green shoots, seeds sprout; flowers tempt insects and animals back. Our plants may not have the softest petals, or the most ornamental leaves, but you’ve got to give them kudos for being tough enough to survive our sunburnt country, with droughts and flooding rains – and fires.
The photos in this post are from the Blue Mountains, taken just before bushfire season. The area isn’t yet affected by bushfires, and I hope it will be unscathed this year.
We spent the first weekend of this month in Blackheath, a town nestled into the quieter back half of the Blue Mountains. It was a long, three-day weekend, and we spent most of it walking around tracks in the surrounding bushland, catching up around bottles of red wine, and eating good food.
The bush around Blackheath wowed me, again. This is such a quintessential “Australian” landscape with bleached colours and too-harsh sun.
Once our eyes adjusted to the brightness around us, I found layers of textures, patterns and contours all around us. Walking on ridges, we saw trees silhouetted against the empty space and bright, blue sky. The cicadas were out in full force. On the way back, we saw so many cicada shells – almost looking like jewelled brooches – clinging to a bushfire-blacked tree.
The scrubs and trees bore traces of past bushfires, in blackened, twisted or broken trunks.
But this is spring, and the bush was bursting with new growth. Flowers were everywhere – tough, small things surrounded by prickly leaves, with saturated yellows and purples that can stand up to the sandy soil and sun. Wattles were flowering, spots and clumps of bright red that grows above other shrubs and draws our eye from a distance.
And onto the food…
Before we went to Blackheath, I made a few loaves of potato bread, based on the potato bread that we made for Tuesdays with Dorie. On our first morning, the potato bread was sliced, toasted, slathered in buttery-ripe avocado and thickly topped with prosciutto. We also made real chai tea, by boiling black tea with spices and ginger, milk and sugar, and ladling the tea into mugs like a chai wallah.
For our bushwalks, I made the simplest granola cookies. These granola cookies.
In making these cookies, I used what we had in the house, started with a Mark Bittman granola recipe, and then reduced the amount of rolled oats, which upped the amount of nuts and dried fruit, and then played around with the proportions of sweeteners, nut butter and spices. And I made these in mini muffin tins, rather than free form, but cookies seem to be as good a description as any.
So, really, these ‘cookies’ didn’t follow the Bittman recipe, but used it as a springboard to crumbly, eat-by-the-handful snacks on the run.
Simplest granola cookies
2 cups rolled oats (not quick-cooking or instant)
2 cups mixed nuts and seeds: I used one cup of roughly chopped hazelnuts, and roughly half a cup each of almonds and pepitas
1 cup dried sweetened cranberries, roughly chopped
3-4 tbsp honey (approximately)
3-4 tbsp golden syrup (roughly, I added golden syrup until the mixture began to clump together)
4 tbsp tahini, plus extra for greasing mini-muffin tins
1/2 – 1 tbsp five spice powder
Optional: one eggwhite, to help the ‘cookies’ stick together
1. Heat the oven to 350°F / 175°C. Grease mini muffin tins with tahini.
2. Combine the oats, nuts and seeds, cranberries, spices, honey, syrup and tahini in a medium sized bowl. Mix well until the mixture starts to clump together. Add more or less golden syrup depending on how sticky you want the granola mixture to be. I’ve also seen recipes that add an egg white to granola cookie mixtures so the final cookies will be less crumbly, but didn’t use egg white this time.
3. Spoon into mini muffin tins. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the ‘cookies’ are browned on top and your kitchen is filled with the smell of toasted (but not burnt) nuts.