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  • Washington Post photos A recipe for homemade Cheez-Its uses real butter instead of highly processed soybean and palm oils.

  • Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt Bars are a homemade version of a Kind Bar, but with less calories, fat and sugar.

  • Washington Post Use gelatin and fruit juice to make homemade gummies.

Monday, September 11, 2017 1:00 am

Store snacks, made better

Cut down on processed additives, packaging with homemade versions

Sara Kate Gillingham | Washington Post

When I was a kid, the primary packaging in my lunch was the brown paper bag that held it all together. Occasionally my mom would buy the two-compartment Kraft Handi-Snacks cheese-and-cracker sets with the red plastic stick for spreading the cheese.

Who remembers those? In the late 1970s and '80s, they were one of the only snacks in town.

These days, the packaged snack food industry has exploded into an $80 billion-a-year affair. According to David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, snack bars alone represent almost $7 billion in annual sales. People are living off packaged snacks.

Many of these snacks claim to be “healthy,” but I am skeptical. Besides, beyond the ingredients and daily allowance of sugar, fat and carbs, there's the health of the planet. What about packaging? What about the process of making processed ingredients?

So I set out to make some popular packaged snack foods at home.

Kind Bars: Interestingly, in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration squelched the joy of hordes of snackers by announcing that four Kind Bars were misbranded as healthy. It turns out that to the FDA, to earn the right to use the word “healthy” on packaging, a product could have no more than 3 grams of fat (or 1 gram of saturated fat).

In the case of the Kind Bar, this fat comes from the nuts in the bars, plain and simple. I'm not one to argue about the healthfulness of a handful of nuts, so it doesn't worry me. However, for a snack that too often replaces a meal for people on the go, I'd love to see the sugar go down and, of course, the packaging eliminated.

The most popular Kind Bar flavor is Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, and, incidentally, this bar never carried the “healthy” label. A single bar has 200 calories, 15 grams of fat (3 grams saturated), 5 grams of sugar and 6 grams of protein. With my homemade recipe, I was able to get the calories, fat and sugar all down a bit.

Cheez-Its: I admit I'm unable to turn a cold shoulder to a bowl of these neon orange salty tiles. There's something about their shape – the hole in the middle, the ridged edges. But I don't love eating soybean and palm oils if I can have real butter instead; these oils tend to be highly refined and processed. I was excited to pull out my pastry wheel and roll out some squares.

I decided to play with both the flours and the cheeses, and I encourage you to do the same. I replaced a third of the flour with whole wheat, and I also used a combination of cheddar and Parmesan cheese instead of just straight cheddar. There's no reason you couldn't branch out to Jack cheese and beyond. Avoid cheeses with a lot of moisture, such as fresh mozzarella. If it grates easily on a fine grater, give it a shot.

Fruit snacks: When I started this DIY snack project, our house was most excited about the fruit gummies, particularly in choosing which forms we should use. You can buy a silicone candy form that will make exact replicas of the classic gummy bear, but silicone ice cube trays work just fine, or even a glass baking dish treated as a blank canvas to slice, dice or stamp out shapes.

You're basically making Jell-O with a lot more heft and a natural juice base. The big difference is the gummies are glossier and less chewy than gummy bears or Welch's Fruit Snacks.

Commercial gummy snacks stay stiff and rubbery thanks to carnauba wax, also used in shoe polish, car wax and mascara. The wax is derived from a natural source (the carnauba palm tree, native to Brazil), but it is highly processed, and as a mom I just find that repulsive. My homemade versions weren't as shelf-stable as a bag of Welch's, but they get vacuumed up by little mouths anyway, so no need for stabilizers and wax.

Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt Bars

These snack bars are so close to the original (Kind brand) that you might be able to fool some people. You can also go off-road and make up your own combinations with seeds such as sesame or chia, other nuts like cashews and pecans, dried fruit and even spices like ginger and cardamom. Replacing half the brown rice syrup with a beaten egg white will reduce the sugar content and give you a little protein boost.

Make sure you wait until they are completely cool before drizzling the chocolate or attempting to wrap them.

3/4 cup whole roasted, unsalted almonds

2/3 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts

2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1 cup crisped brown rice cereal (may substitute puffed grain cereals such as millet or amaranth)

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for finishing

1/4 cup brown rice syrup

1 large egg white, beaten

1/3 cup (2 ounces) bittersweet chocolate pieces/chips

1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a quarter baking sheet (9-by-12 inches) with parchment paper, leaving some paper overhang (for easier extraction later).

Combine all the nuts, the cereal and the salt in a mixing bowl.

Gently heat the brown rice syrup until liquid, either in a microwave on medium low for 20 seconds or on the stove top in small saucepan over medium-low heat. Pour the syrup over the nut mixture and stir until evenly coated, then stir in the egg white until evenly distributed.

Transfer the mixture to the baking sheet, using the back of a spatula to compact the mixture into a slab, which may not fill quite to the edges.

Bake (middle rack) for about 15 minutes, or until starting to brown along the edges of the slab. Transfer to a wire rack to cool (on the sheet) for 20 minutes.

Use the parchment paper to lift the slab from the pan, transferring it to a cutting board. Cut into 16 bars of equal size. Let cool completely.

Meanwhile, prepare the chocolate drizzle: Combine the chocolate and oil in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium in 30-second increments, stirring in between, until the chocolate is melted.

Drizzle this over the bars in a crisscross pattern, then sprinkle lightly with a litle salt. Allow the chocolate to set, at least 15 minutes, before serving or storing.

Make ahead: The bars, wrapped individually in parchment paper and kept in an airtight container, can be held at room temperature for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 1 month.

– From cookbook author and TheKitchn.com founder Sara Kate Gillingham

Homemade Cheez-Its

2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose white flour, plus more for dusting

1/3 cup whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt

1/8 teaspoon sweet paprika

8 ounces grated sharp or extra-sharp cheddar, Jack or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (or a combination), at room temperature

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 or 3 tablespoons ice water

Kosher salt, for sprinkling

Whisk together the flours, baking powder, table or fine sea salt and the paprika in mixing bowl.

Combine the cheese and butter in the bowl of stand mixer on medium speed, until well blended. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

On low speed, add the flour mixture and beat to form a crumbly mix. Gradually add the water, as needed, until a ball of dough forms.

Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there and divide in half, patting each half into a disk. Wrap each one in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead into a tight mass then divide in half and pat each half into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Re-flour the work surface as needed. Unwrap one disk of dough and roll out to a rectangle with a thickness of 1/8-inch. Use a sharp knife or fluted pastry wheel to cut 1-inch squares, then use a skewer to poke a hole at the center of each one. Transfer to the baking sheets, spacing the squares at least 1/4 inch apart. Refrigerate for 15 minutes; repeat with the second portion of dough. Scraps can be re-rolled.

Sprinkle the unbaked crackers lightly with kosher salt. Bake each sheet one at a time (middle rack) for 16 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp. Transfer the crackers to a wire rack to cool completely before serving or storing.

Make ahead: The dough needs to be refrigerated for at least 30 minutes and up to one day. The rolled-and-cut cracker dough needs to be refrigerated for 15 minutes. The baked crackers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

Servings: 5 servings; makes 80 to 90 small crackers

– From cookbook author and TheKitchn.com founder Sara Kate Gillingham

Homemade Gummies

About the sweetness of these candies, if a juice is sweet enough to drink, it's sweet enough for a gummy snack, but you might feel differently. Cranberry juice, for example, is typically pre-sweetened, so why would you add sugar? Experiment and see what works best. They are not quite as firm/rubbery as commercial gummy bears and less sweet.

A little science: Pineapple, mango, papaya, guava, ginger and figs all contain an enzyme that can prevent the gelatin from solidifying, so if you're using juices containing those, boil the juice first, then whisk in the gelatin. You can use a silicone candy mold or an 8-inch square glass baking dish and some small cookie/candy cutters.

These were made using apple juice, which produced a mild flavor, and grape juice, which yielded more flavor. The optional honey was added in.

Vegetable or liquefied coconut oil

2 cups pure apple juice or grape juice (see headnote)

2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (optional; see headnote)

4 tablespoons unflavored powdered gelatin (from more than one 1-ounce box)

Use a little oil to grease the molds or baking dish.

Combine the juice and honey or maple syrup, if using, in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Once a few bubbles begin to appear at the edges, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the surface and then whisk it in quickly until smooth, making sure no clumps form.

Pour the gummy mixture into the silicone candy mold or the baking dish. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until the mixture sets. Then the gummies will be ready to be popped out of the silicone mold, or gently coaxed out of the glass baking dish onto a cutting board to be cut into small squares or other shapes.

Make ahead: The gummy mixture needs to be refrigerated for at least 2 hours to set. The gummies can be refrigerated in airtight container for up to three days.

Servings: 8-12 servings; about 400 3/4-inch gummies

– From cookbook author and TheKitchn.com founder Sara Kate Gillingham