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Alimentary, My Dear

Setting the Bar Higher —
Anyone for a Brown Bomber?
Or How About a Mean Bean?
Now That's a Mean Bean!

By Tamia Nelson

May 15, 2012

As regular readers will know, I've been unhappy with commercial "energy bars" for some time now, mostly on the grounds of taste and economy. So I've been building my own. My latest effort was the Credit Crunch Bar, and judging from the feedback I've received, it's a hit. Earlier efforts — the No‑Bake Bar and the Hundred‑Mile Plus Bar — got a good reception, too, and I continue to get mail around the articles describing them. Sometimes the writers just want to tell me they've tried the bars and liked them. Often, however, they suggest an addition to a recipe, or to ask for …

Something Completely Different

I'm not surprised. Tastes vary, and individual requirements do, too. Many folks love peanuts and peanut butter, for instance, while others break out in a rash at the mere mention of the p‑word. (Make no mistake, peanut allergy isn't a laughing matter for a few unfortunate folks, in whom a single mouthful of peanut butter may provoke a life‑threatening allergic reaction.) The upshot? However long the list of energy bars and other active snacks grows, it's never long enough to meet everyone's needs. Recipes can be made simpler. The balance of protein, carbs, and fats can be tweaked. And there's no end to the demand for new flavors.

This was brought home to me only recently, while chatting with my sister. She's a busy woman — full‑time job, growing family, a husband whose work keeps him on the road for days at a time — and she seized on my Hundred‑Mile Plus Bars as a quick eat‑on‑the‑go breakfast. But that wasn't the subject of our conversation. We were talking about our grandfather, whose active life continued well into his tenth decade, despite debilitating arthritis. His recipe for a vigorous and healthy old age included something he called the "Brown Bomber," a tonic he concocted from equal parts prune juice and straight bourbon whiskey. It was … shall we say … an acquired taste, but Gramps swore by it, and it didn't seem to do him any harm.

At some point during this remembrance of things past I got an idea for a new snack bar. Call it the Brown Bomber Bar. While bourbon is best reserved for a nightcap round the fire, prune juice (or just plain prunes) can have a welcome place in the paddler's everyday meal plan. After all, the altered routines of the traveling life often play hob with the inner man (or inner woman), leading to problems of a sort that presumably never afflict bears, whose ability to do what they do in the woods is proverbial. Roughage is one answer to this little difficulty, of course, and it never hurts to keep a water bottle near to hand, but something more is often needed to prime the dump.

And make no mistake: Prunes will do the job. So this one's for you, Gramps. It's not quite on a par with an eternal flame, but it's a memorial I'm sure you'd appreciate…


Brown Bomber Bars
Yield: 16 Bars


  • 1 cup unsalted almonds
  • 1 pound whole pitted prunes (now usually labeled "dried plums")
  • ½ cup dark chocolate chips
  • ½ cup flax or sesame seeds (or a combination of the two)
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or bourbon, if that's more to your liking)
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup or honey
  • 2 tablespoons Nutella (substitute peanut butter if you wish)
  • ¼ cup water (optional)

Line an 8‑ or 9‑inch square baking pan with waxed paper, allowing the paper to extend above the sides. Drizzle a little cooking oil on the waxed paper and spread it around with the back of a spoon. Now set the pan aside.

Place the almonds in a food processor and pulse till they take on the appearance of coarse bread crumbs. Pour them into a large mixing bowl. Next, pulse the prunes till they're reduced to a paste. (If the prunes clump or ball up, break apart the clumps and distribute them more evenly. Then add a little water before switching on the processor again.) Now combine the prune paste with the nut crumbs in the mixing bowl, add the other ingredients, and blend with a sturdy spoon or baking spatula. If the result is too dry to work easily, add a little water — but don't be overgenerous. The final mixture should have the consistency of a stiff paste.

Ladle this paste into the waxed‑paper‑lined baking dish and tamp down with a spoon. Now cover with another square of waxed paper and press down with your palms or the bottom of a measuring cup until the paste has been transformed into a firm slab. Leave the paper on top and refrigerate the dish for at least two hours.

After the contents are cold and unyielding to the touch, remove the baking dish from the fridge. Peel off the top sheet of waxed paper and use the protruding margins of the liner to lift out the chilled mixture. Place the slab on a cutting board and divide into bars with a heavy knife. Three cuts in each direction will yield 16 squares, though the number and size of the bars are up to you. Wrap each bar separately in waxed paper, then refrigerate or freeze until you're ready to head for the put‑in. If stored somewhere reasonably cool while under way — not in a closed compartment in a black kayak in high summer! — the bars should keep for at least a week. Be sure to bring plenty of bumwad. The bears will be getting some real competition.


The bottom line? Brown Bomber Bars keep things moving where it counts. And they're easy to make. But how do they taste? Just fine, I'm happy to say. They're pleasantly sweet, with very little "prune flavor." The chocolate and honey don't cloy, while the seeds give your teeth something to work on. The bars are very soft and sticky, however. So keep the individual wrappings and carry your arsenal of Brown Bombers in a rigid container.

Bombers Away!


But what if you don't have a sweet tooth? Or if the thought of eating prunes — sorry, dried plums — doesn't sit well with you? Or if you're trying to cut back on carbs and simple sugars? A lot of paddlers are doing just that, and Melanie is one. Here's what she wrote:

I have hypoglycemia and need to eat a high ratio of protein to carbohydrates for every meal and snack. Do you have a recipe for a dense travel cake or bar that has no sugar in any form (including honey or maple syrup) and that is very high in protein? Some fruit is okay for flavor, but raisins, bananas, and fruit juice have too much sugar for people with blood-sugar problems. Perhaps you have a recipe for diabetic protein bars?

At first, this had me stumped. But while I can't claim any specialist expertise in nutrition, I figured I'd eventually come up with something that might fit the bill. And as luck would have it, I was making homemade refried black beans not long after I read Melanie's letter. Could this be the answer to her query? It seemed possible. Beans are high in protein and fiber, with starches ("complex carbohydrates") far outweighing simple sugars. They also have a mild flavor, and they yield a firm mash. Both are good qualities in any ingredient you plan to incorporate into a dough or batter. So I got to work and came up with Mean Bean Protein Bars. The recipe also allows for substitutions and omissions to tailor the carbohydrate profile to your needs. That said, please bear in mind that I'm not a dietician. If you're under a doctor's care for hypoglycemia or diabetes, you should ask him to vet any new addition to your menu, before you take that first bite. 'Nuff said? I hope so.

OK. Now here goes:


Mean Bean Protein Bars
Yield: 16 Bars


  • 1‑pound can black beans, drained and rinsed OR 1½ cups home‑cooked beans
  • ½ cup unsweetened peanut butter OR other nut butter OR Nutella (NB Nutella contains sugar)
  • ¼ cup honey OR maple, agave, or brown rice syrup (omit for low‑sugar recipe)
  • ¼ cup fruit purée (unsweetened applesauce, mashed banana, mashed prunes, or chopped dates)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract OR strong coffee
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon OR cardamom OR instant coffee granules
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1½ cups old‑fashioned oatmeal (uncooked)
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • ½ cup nonfat dry milk
  • ½ cup all‑purpose flour
  • 1 cup nuts OR dried fruit OR a combination of nuts and fruit
  • About ¼ cup water (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly oil or butter an 8‑ or 9‑inch square baking dish and set aside.

Mash the beans and then combine with the nut butter or Nutella in a large bowl. Blend in the honey or syrup (if desired), followed by the fruit purée of your choice. Add the vanilla extract or liquid coffee, the spice (or coffee granules), and the salt. Stir. The mixture should have the consistency of moist paste. Next, fold in the remaining dry ingredients one by one, using a sturdy spoon. You should now have a slightly sticky, somewhat doughy mash. If it's too stiff to spread easily in the baking dish, add small amounts of water, a little bit at a time, until the mash becomes easier to work. Once the transfer is completed, pop the dish into the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Be careful not to over‑bake! A toothpick inserted into the "cake" should come out clean, with little or no clinging residue.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to sit a couple of minutes before cutting the cake into bars with a wetted knife. Now let the cut cake cool thoroughly. Wrap bars individually in waxed paper and refrigerate or freeze until you're ready to head out. In temperate climes, the bars should keep for at least a week without refrigeration.


If, like Melanie, you want to minimize the sugar content, leave out the sweetener and the dried fruit, adding only nuts and unsweetened applesauce.

Looks Good, Doesn't It?

How do Mean Bean Bars taste? Pretty good. And the texture is pleasantly chewy, with the nuts and oats providing a bit of crunch. I used peanut butter, unsweetened applesauce, hot coffee, instant coffee granules, and a combination of walnuts and craisins (dried cranberries) in my first batch. The bars had a rich mocha flavor that I quite enjoyed. Farwell was less than enthusiastic, however. Then again, he's never met a simple sugar he didn't like. But with the jury deadlocked, it was obvious that I needed to broaden my informal taste‑test focus group.

So I did just that, offering Mean Bean Bars to a couple of active, health‑conscious young women who seldom have time to eat sit‑down meals during the workday. And they both asked for more. The verdict? It looks like Farwell is in the minority on this one. Unless you're a confirmed sugar‑daddy, these Mean Bean Bars should do the business for you. But the only way to find out is to try them yourself. Trust me, there are plenty of worse jobs around.

Pot's on the Boil!

Commercial "energy bars" are ubiquitous, but they're not cheap, and some don't really seem to belong in the food category at all. So I started making my own. That was a while back now, but I'm still at it — still building DIY energy bars. And readers are still asking for more. Which is why this week's column has me returning to my test kitchen and emerging with the Brown Bomber and the Mean Bean. Will either of these be right for you? Or do I have to set the bar higher still?

Why not give each a try? Then let me know what you think.



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