Create: Best.Granola.Ever.

Guest post by Jane Lerner

Big day here on Good House Guest: our second guest post comes from the very first rate Jane Lerner. In addition to being a top-notch writer and editor, Jane throws an excellent party, always suggests just the right restaurant and is the woman to call about a food adventure. Plus, she shows up with treats from one of her favorite neighborhood spots or her magic kitchen. Jane’s granola recipe is a secret I’ve been after for awhile now, so I’m thrilled she is sharing it with GHG. Thank you Jane! Connect with Jane on Twitter and be sure to check out her gorgeous new website. You’ll love Jane as much as her granola.

I host a lot of house guests. There was one stretch in late 2010 where 14 different sets of guests stayed in my apartment over a four-month period. Granted, I have a spacious three-bedroom apartment in a popular part of Brooklyn, and when I moved in I extended an open invitation to all of my friends. Problem is, everyone took me up on it.

I love having guests in theory, but I have learned—the hard way—that I contain a finite amount of hospitality. My sincerest apologies to those friends who stayed with me when I was at the end of my gracious-host rope. At the conclusion of that 14-guest run I was ready to relocate to a 300-square-foot studio just to discourage anyone else who might want to visit. Luckily my friends are wonderful people, most of them with good manners and a real consideration for the fact that staying in someone’s home means that a gift is in order. I’ve received a colorful cutting board, a gigantic jar of local honey and an array of specialty foods from the gourmet shop down the street, but truth be told the best present is a guest who does the dishes, is fun to hang out with and doesn’t burn the house down (yes, a few folks have introduced fire into the equation).

Homemade gifts are especially sweet, and if you’d really like to warm the hearts of your hosts, may I recommend whipping up a batch of granola to present as a pre–thank to get in good graces the minute you step over the threshold. This granola is a mishmash of a few recipes I’ve tried over the years, and I think I’ve hit upon the perfect version. As a friend recently emailed, after sampling a batch of the stuff: “Your granola game is tight. Best I have ever eaten!” Package it in a large Mason jar and add a little tag that says, “THANK YOU!” I guarantee that no one will complain about you on Good House Guest ever again.

GHG Granola

3 cups rolled oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tsp Maldon salt
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 to 3/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup dried unsweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup French coconut cubes (optional, as they are only available at Fairway)
1 cup golden raisins and diced dried apricot

Preheat oven to 325°. In a large bowl, combine oats, nuts, cardamom, salt, olive oil and maple syrup. The mixture should be well coated but not super wet. Spread evenly on two large baking sheets, put in oven and bake for 20 minutes until the mixture is a toasty light brown, stirring two or three times. Add in the coconut flakes and coconut cubes. Bake for 15 minutes more, stirring once or twice. The granola should be a dark golden brown—monitor it closely to avoid burning.

Remove pans from oven and let cool on racks. Stir in dried fruit. Transfer to a few large Mason jars and give away as gifts.

Adapted from/inspired by published recipes from Mark Bittman and Early Bird Granola.

Create: A Sweet Tradition

My childhood birthday dessert memories are a chilled, sugary trifecta of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, chocolate cake and the dense, glossy frosting found only in a Baskin Robbins ice cream cake. I cannot separate celebrating my dad’s birthday from an airy, spongy forkful of angel food cake. High school was flavored by the so fake (but so good) box birthday cakes and cupcakes that we’d make for friends. And people tell my husband and me that ding dongs-––we built a tower of the waxy pucks to make a cake––will always remind them of our wedding.

These sugary memories have sticking power. So when I asked what I could make for my niece, Ale’s, second birthday party and my sister-in-law handed me a cake recipe, I panicked a bit. The cake, presented to the birthday girl ablaze with candles, would not only be immortalized in photos, but people would actually eat it. Lots of people. And there is no hiding a bad cake.

Well, the cake came through, and the cooking assignment turned out to be one of the best ones yet. Because this cake, the Cook’s Illustrated carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, has now become the family birthday dessert. I have also baked it for the first birthdays of my son and nephew, Francis. Just last week we welcomed another nephew, Thomas, and I hope to make it for him too. The taste of tangy cream cheese frosting and spicy sweet cake is now mingled with watching my niece, son and nephew delight over a confection just for them. And the so-joyful-I-could-burst feeling of having these little ones here to bake for at all. It is a wonder certainly deserving of cake.

Pictured above is my son on his first birthday. I will probably never bake anything as well-received as that cake. Anyone else have a cake or sweets recipe that has become a tradition with family and friends?


Gift: Buy Local

My sister, Susie, packaged up the most thoughtful assortment of east coast treats in a simple brown paper lunch sack as a Christmas hostess gift this year. It was the sweetest modern day general store goody bag.

She included local favorites like a gorgeously wrapped Mast Brothers Chocolate bar and old-timey Brooklyn Hard Candy, both made in New York. Plus, the creamy (and super addictive) goat milk caramels from Big Picture Farm. You can even follow the goats who supply the milk online, like Fern and Gertrude, of this Willy Wonka gone locavore farm and confectionery in Vermont. Talk about knowing your source.

Local treats are an excellent theme for a gift for all sorts of occasions, especially if visiting someone out of town. It doesn’t need to be much either––a candy bar, jar of pickles, bottle of hot sauce––is all it takes to transport a little taste of your home to theirs.


Ps&Qs: Make a Reservation

One of my favorite gifts for friends who invite me for an extended stay is to treat to a lovely dinner out. This might seem like a last minute cop-out, but with a little planning it’s really quite thoughtful. You get to spend time together, experience your host’s town from another perspective and no one has to worry about the dishes.

I research places––linger-over-everything-and-really-catch-up-spots––on Zagat, Urbanspoon, Eater, The New York Times (Dining & Wine and Travel sections), or a local magazine or city paper. I like to offer a few options before making a reservation. Nothing like booking at a top steak joint only to discover that your friend is now a vegetarian. Perhaps there’s a new place they’ve been wanting to try, but just needed an occasion. Well, here’s the opportunity.

Also, If you’re staying with someone who won’t let you pick up the tab for anything, this is a way to sneak in a little something. Pick up a gift certificate for a excellent restaurant and leave it behind for them as a thank you. By the time they can even try to argue, you’ll be halfway home.

Gift: Friday I’m in Like/Luv/Love

I think the last time my husband and I attempted to celebrate Valentine’s Day we surprised one another by having both made cards with an anatomical heart theme (complete with graphic arteries and ventricles). Ours is a curious brand of romance.

That said, I’m not entirely unromantic either. Irregularly shaped construction paper hearts, bunchy tissue paper flowers and teeny cards with corny knock-knock jokes do make me swoon. And really, any opportunity to let others know that your heart skips a few extra beats because of them, should be taken.

So, for those marking Valentine’s Day on Tuesday, here are a few gift ideas for friends, family, significant others and even yourself.

Express how you feel in prose short and sweet with these bold, graphic postcards of affection from Enormous Champion.


Present something less expected than roses like this flowering bonsai tree kit from Sprout Home (an endless source of wonderful finds). Just like your fondness, it’s the gift that keeps on growing.


Get creative with your littlest sweethearts. The glitter, feathers and other trimmings included for tricking out folded hearts and animals make this origami kit truly awesome.


Share the obsession of Downton Abbey with anyone keen on intense family drama, smoldering romantic tension, lavish dinner parties and fanciful hats. Sparkling eye candy aside, it is an engaging, well-cast mini series. I’ll be crushed when it ends.


Need an antidote for all the Valentine’s Day schmaltz? Taking a break from love this year? This t-shirt from Love Is Lame will alert suitors to back off. Warning: some might take it as a challenge.


I kinda can’t believe I found this hand embroidered pillow, but that’s the magic of Etsy. And Plumed appears to have stitched pillow designs for every brand of romance too. Be still my heart.



Gift: Guest Perks

An apology to our overnight guests: I’ve been slacking as a host. There was a time when I topped off your stack of sheets and towels with little soaps, always arranged fresh flowers (ok, I usually still manage this) and never forgot to set out the subway maps for you. Sure, the place is tidy and you’ll have your own set of keys, but what of the little perks?

You traveled all those miles to come see us and the city where we live. It’s a big effort, and I need to remember to be more gracious about that. So, while I can’t promise everything, here is my wish list (if I had an actual guest room and unlimited budget) of things I’d like to have on hand to make your stay more comfortable.

Fresh scented fancy little soaps like these from Santa Maria Novellathe 16th century pharmacy and perfume shop in Florence.

I used to keep a basket of slippers at the door, but no one seemed to wear them. Perhaps if I upgraded to the cozy Wicked Good moccasins from L.L. Bean I’d have more takers.

Did I mention you’ll be staying on a pull-out couch? But, with a bit of imagination and this waffle kimono robe you might think you’re at a proper hotel. For a minute anyway.

This hand-thrown porcelain water carafe and cup from Pigeon Toe Ceramics would be the ultimate accessory. It’s reason enough for a guest room, preferably one with a private balcony.

I have a whole stack of useful maps, but with the advent of smartphones I forget to offer them. I love traveling with an actual map and, even more critical, a guide book providing the real scoop on a place. The Not For Tourists series is excellent for that.

Thank you to my friend Charlotte for sparking today’s topic, and guest room envy. What are the little extras that you like to have for guests when they visit?


Create: Make Someone's Day

My mom is a note writer. We could mark the years in messages tucked into lunches or school bags in her neat cursive covering everything from the encouraging “Good luck on your test” to the practical “Don’t forget to turn in your permission slip”. On my 16th birthday, I opened my lunch (which she still made every day––yes, I was lucky and spoiled) that had been packed inside of a paper birthday hat along with several notes. I blushed (and probably said: oh my gosh, my mom is such a dork!)  knowing I was too old for this, but truly happy that I hadn’t outgrown it either.

I’ve never outgrown it, and I owe that entirely to my mom. What a simple, lasting gift. I love leaving and finding notes. Even a quickly scrawled post-it on my desk will do. Thankfully I’ve paired up with someone who understands this about me.  My husband, Todd, even goes as far as concepting themes for the elaborately photo-shopped stack of notes that he leaves for me to open every day when he’s on extended work trips. He also posts things (in the style of ‘lost cat’ bulletins on trees) for our son all around the house. It’s sweet and our son makes sure the notes are well fed as shown above.

Todd’s creativity has challenged me to up my note writing game too. For a recent trip I jotted down facts (population stats; key phrases to know; etc.) about the city he’d be working in, and equally important facts about life at home (we miss you more today; things are boring here without you; etc.) on little scraps of paper. I layered these notes and a few photos between the clothes in his suitcase as a surprise to unpack miles (fact: 4,081 miles) away from home.

Here’s the thing, notes like these can completely change someone’s day, and it doesn’t take much. Seeing as it’s February 1, it’s about to start dumping diamond and long-stem roses advertising. To combat all that in the coming weeks, take a moment to write a sweet, funny or flirty message to someone that you care about––a roommate, co-worker, the waitress at lunch, your neighbor. Leave a poem on the kitchen counter, impart one kind line on the back of a receipt, or scrawl a waxy crayon heart on construction paper to simply say ‘I like you’. It’s way more lasting than roses.