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Send a bite of home: Care packages for your college kids

Updated: 
October 16, 2017 - 7:00pm

School is back, which means that many parents (and grandparents) have a child (or children) in college.

How can you show them that you love them? How can you make their day? And, if you do it right, how can you embarrass them just a little?

Send a care package. One of the great joys of living in a dorm is receiving a box full of your favorite treats from home. And another joy of dorm life is living down the hall from a guy who gets a box full of his favorite treats from home.

So it’s a win-win.

And it’s not just college students who need and deserve care packages. Think how happy a loved one in the military will be to receive food from home.

All it takes to send a successful care package is a little common sense. Don’t send ice cream, unless you pack it in a cooler with dry ice — and even then the student will have to have a freezer to put it in. Don’t send raw meat. Don’t send vegetables.

Do send baked goods, particularly baked goods that are fairly sturdy and can stand up to the rigors of shipping. Try to avoid things that will soon turn into crumbs. And make sure they won’t go stale anytime soon, too.

For my hypothetical child at college — what they heck, let’s say he’s at Harvard on full scholarship — I made a care package with four items I know he would love and crave, if he existed.

Granola bars, for instance. While any college kid can hop down to the bookstore and buy a granola bar (or soldier to the PX or base or post exchange), homemade granola bars are a whole other story.

As proof, I offer my own experience. I do not like granola bars, or I did not like them until I first made my own. Now, I like granola bars, but only the homemade ones.

I think the difference is the freshness and the way the combination of ingredients has not been homogenized by countless focus groups. And you can make them to order. Once you have the base down, you can add your own combination of add-ins. I used chopped dates and coconut, but you can use whatever you want — dried cherries, M&Ms, chocolate chips. Whatever sounds good.

You can always pretend that granola bars are healthful, but there is no such excuse for Cheerio Peanut Butter Cereal Bars. They’re just good. No, they’re just great. Amazing, even.

Everybody knows Rice Krispies Treats. For my care package, I wanted that same idea, only with my favorite cereal, Cheerios. I have nothing against Rice Krispies (they’re in my top five), but Cheerios are like manna from heaven, only better. They are the ultimate expression of breakfast foods, the Platonic ideal of cereal.

And Cheerios Peanut Butter Cereal Bars are kind of the Platonic Ideal of snack foods in general and care-package foods in particular. They’re light in texture, though perhaps not in calories, and are somehow both chewy and a little crunchy at the same time.

The recipe comes straight from Cheerios, and who would know better what to do with their cereal than they? The original recipe calls for Chocolate Cheerios, and while I don’t think they are necessarily a complete abomination, I also have no need to ever try them. I am a purist. I used regular Cheerios, and I am not ashamed.

Another recipe caught my eye because it reminded me of one of my favorite candy bars.

Salted Peanut Bars are sort of like Payday bars, with some significant differences. First and foremost, they have a simple crust on the bottom so it is a bar as in a lemon bar: A Payday bar bar.

Also, it is not really a nougat, as in a Payday bar; it is more of a cross between a nougat and peanut brittle, with an extra dash of butterscotch.

It’s familiar but unique. It’s superb. I may like it as much as the Cheerios thing.

I finished off my care package with something that, as far as I can tell, is beloved by everyone in the world. Who wouldn’t want to open a package from home and find a big batch of homemade caramel popcorn?

I made the popcorn the relatively old-fashioned way, on top of a stove in a pot. I didn’t want any of the extra flavors that you get when you pop it in a bag in a microwave (and yes, when I was growing up we used to pop it in a basket over a fire, but that adds another unwanted flavor).

The hard part of making caramel corn is usually making the caramel itself. Caramel can be tricky, but the recipe I found from Kitchn was easy.

But was it good?

It was caramel. It was popcorn. It was superb.

Granola Bars

This recipe from www.blessthismessplease.com serves 18.

2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats

1/2 cup coarsely chopped almonds

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup honey

3/4 cup mixed add-ins such as chocolate chips, raisins, M&Ms, etc. (I used 1/2 cup chopped dates and 1/4 cup shredded coconut)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-by-9-inch baking pan with foil, and coat with nonstick spray.

Spread oats and almonds on a baking sheet and toast 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, combine butter, brown sugar, salt, vanilla and honey, and stir until thoroughly melted together and the sugar is dissolved.

In a large bowl, stir together the oat mixture and the butter-sugar mixture. Stir in the add-ins. Pour into the prepared baking pan, smooth the top and refrigerate at least 2 hours before cutting into bars.

Cheerios Peanut Butter Cereal Bars

Adapted from a recipe by Cheerios, this recipe serves 24.

5 cups Cheerios cereal

3/4 cup raisins

3/4 cup salted peanuts

1 cup corn syrup

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 cup creamy peanut butter

1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Spray a 13-by-9-inch pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine cereal, raisins and peanuts; set aside.

In a 2-quart saucepan, combine corn syrup and sugars. Heat to boiling over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter.

Pour peanut butter mixture over cereal mixture; mix until thoroughly coated. Spread evenly in pan.

Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler or microwave for about 1 minute, stirring every 15 seconds, until melted and smooth. Drizzle over bars. Refrigerate 15 minutes or until chocolate is set.

Salted Peanut Bars

This recipe from “The Daily Cookie” by Anna Ginsberg serves 24.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted

2 cups lightly salted peanuts

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons butter (not melted)

1 cup butterscotch chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick foil, or line it with regular foil and spray the foil with flour-added baking spray.

Mix the flour, brown sugar and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the melted butter. Press into the bottom of the prepared pan and bake 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the peanuts over the crust, pressing down slightly. Keep the oven on.

In a small saucepan, combine the corn syrup, water and unmelted butter and heat over medium heat until very hot. Add the butterscotch chips and continue heating until the mixture boils. Boil gently for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour the butterscotch mixture over the peanuts. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool completely in the pan, then lift from the pan, set on a cutting board and cut into 24 bars.

Caramel Popcorn

This recipe from Kitchn.com yields 10-12 cups.

1/2 cup unpopped popcorn kernels

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Arrange racks in the top and bottom third of the oven, and preheat to 250 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Warm three corn kernels and the oil in a large lidded pot over medium heat (this will make about 10 cups of popcorn; do it in two batches if your pot is not large enough). When the kernels pop, add the rest of the kernels to the pot, shake to coat with oil, and cover. Pop the corn, shaking the pot occasionally, until the popping slows. Transfer immediately to a heat-proof bowl or another large pot.

Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Mix in the sugar until it is completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, boil for 3 to 4 minutes, continuously stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan (if using an electric stove, boil for 2 to 3 minutes).

Take the pan off the heat and add the vanilla, salt and baking soda, and stir until combined. Be careful: the hot sugar mixture will bubble up violently when you add the vanilla. Continue stirring until you form a thick, glossy sauce.

Slowly pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn while stirring the popcorn. Stir until all the kernels are coated.

Divide the popcorn between the prepared baking sheets, spreading it out into an even layer. Bake 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes and breaking up any clumps. Let the popcorn cool completely on the baking sheets. It may be stored for up to one week in an airtight container.

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