What is an energy ball if not a spherical granola bar?
That is a question I cannot answer! But I can theorize that we humans have a penchant for perfectly rotund foods: Cake becomes cake balls; granita becomes snow balls; doughnuts become doughnut balls holes. (And, not food-related, but have you seen these globular stuffed animals?!)
Energy balls: They're cute! They're compact! And they're easy to stash in a teeny-tiny Tupperware in your purse pocket and gobble up in just two bites (one, if you're an expert) when your colleagues look the other way during a 3 PM meeting. They're the adult version of a Dragon Ball, except instead of summoning a wish-granting dragon, energy balls summon a little oomph you didn't know you still had in you. (They also make for a convenient supplement to a skimpy breakfast.)
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And because energy balls are just like granola bars, the same construction principles apply: You'll want a good mix of sticky stuff (binders) and hearty stuff (fillers) so that your balls are neither crumbly nor goopy. And, oh yeah, you'll want them to taste good, too.
1. Start by raiding your pantry.
Take inventory of your cabinets, deciding if you'd like oats to be the basis of your energy balls or to take a back seat (or no seat at all): Do you want a snack that's more closely related to fruit and nut bars (think Lara Bars) or granola bars (like Quaker Chewy Bars)?
In the photos, you'll see both routes: On the left in the photo above, we've got future date-based energy balls made with toasted cashews, pitted dates, coconut oil, cocoa powder, tahini, and cinnamon. And on the right, there are oaty energy balls to-be, made from rolled oats, almond butter, dried cherries, lemon zest, chopped candied ginger, maple syrup, flax seeds.
To get started, consider choosing one or two ingredients from each category based on your preferences or your stockpile:
The hearty stuff: oats (old-fashioned or instant: old-fashioned oats will give a very chewy ball, whereas instant oats become softer and more dough-like); big dried fruits (figs, apricots, pitted dates—if any are ossified, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes, then drain and proceed); nuts (toasted or raw; whole, slivered, or sliced)
The sticky binders: nut butter; chia and flax seeds; tahini (or chocolate tahini!); coconut oil
The sweeteners: maple syrup; honey; agave; brown rice syrup; date syrup; and who's to stop you from adding Nutella?
The bonus flavor-adders: cocoa powder; shredded coconut (toasted or raw); sesame and poppy seeds; small dried fruits (cherries, blueberries, raisins, currants); pumpkin seeds; sunflower seeds; spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice); cacao nibs or chopped chocolate; citrus zest
Of course you can have both oats and dried fruit and nuts, but if you'll be using large dried fruits and lots of nuts, you'll want to haul out your food processor for this next step.
2. Mix it up.
If your balls are largely fruit-and-nut-based, you'll need the food processor. First grind the nuts (be they whole or sliced, toasted or raw), pulsing until you have the desired consistency—leave them coarser for a crunchier ball; pulverize for a meltier texture. (You can also skip this step and use nut flour—like almond or hazelnut meal leftover from a baking project—instead.)
Now, roughly chop any of the large dried fruits and add them to the food processor along with your other ingredients from the list (binders, sweeteners, other goodies). A tablespoon or two of coconut oil will add richness; tahini can bring a savory nuttiness.
Keep in mind that dried figs and dates are so gooey and sugary, you probably won't need a lot of binder or sweetener (if any!)—so start slowly. You also may want to offset the sticky feel with cocoa powder, wheat germ, flax meal, shredded coconut, or other dry powdery helpers.
Keep adding, mixing, and tasting until you have a mixture that tastes good and will hold together in ball-form.
If your balls are primarily oats, you can mix them up in a bowl, no equipment needed. Since oats are dry (duh) and not sweet (duh), you'll need to add a much larger volume of binders and sweeteners to get your mixture to come together into a sticky mass.
Dump the oats into a bowl, toss in the mix-ins (small dried fruits, coconut flakes, chocolate chips), then spoon in your binder of choice (say, peanut butter) and a bit of sweetener (like honey) and mix, mix, mix. If it's not coming together, add more binder (chia seeds and flax seeds can also help your energy balls to gel up). If it's lacking in flavor, add some spices or another drizzle of sweetener.
When you can smush the oat mixture into a ball, it's ready. (You may have to compact it very forcefully—that's okay! As the oats hydrate in the refrigerator, they'll soften up and the balls will become less crumbly.)
3. Roll into balls.
Once your mixture is a sticky mass that coheres into neat balls, you're ready to roll. I find it easiest to keep a bowl of cool water close by: I like to wet my hands, form a ball with about 3 or 4 tablespoons'-worth of the mush (you can make them smaller, but don't go too big or they'll be susceptible to crumbling), and dampen my hands whenever they're too sticky to handle.
If you've made fruit-and-nut balls, now's your chance to give them a fun coating, which will counterbalance the stickiness and make them more beautiful. Try shredded coconut, sesame seeds, cocoa powder (at this point, you're practically making truffles), matcha, or more finely-chopped nuts.
Place on parchment- or wax paper-lined baking sheets or plates.
Chill the balls in the refrigerator (or freezer) for two or three hours, until they're firmer and less sticky.
When they're stable and solid, transfer to a covered container or a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator or freezer for several weeks—or until it's time to make another round.
What's your favorite on-the-go snack for when you need a little jolt of energy? Tell us in the comments below.
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