Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it’s true. It doesn’t have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn’t have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn’t crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it’s 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there’s nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It’s warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it’s gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful — and it’s because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let’s talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let’s take a peek inside, shall we?)
First thing’s first: what’s the difference between porridge and oatmeal? The way I see it, oatmeal is a kind of porridge. I think the true definition of a porridge is any warm cereal that’s prepared with grains, so porridge could be a hot cereal made from, say, spelt and barley or millet and rye (I have a great recipe for a 5-Grain Porridge in the cookbook, which I think you’ll really love). For our purposes today, for all you purists out there, this is technically an oatmeal but could be called a porridge as well. Now I didn’t grow up eating oatmeal or porridge; we had a lot of frozen waffles, toast and cold cereal — quick breakfasts that two working parents could easily get on the table or into our hands before my sisters and I jetted off to our respective schools. But as an adult I came to love oatmeal. I started with the quick Quaker packets in college because they were easy and I could take them on the go, but in my late twenties when I realized how much sugar those little packets contain, I started making my own mixes and realized how nourishing and satisfying steel cut oatmeal and porridge can be when made slowly on the stovetop.
It should be said that in addition to having experiences with rather ho-hum porridge, I think many people avoid making it altogether because it has a reputation of taking a looooong time. And it does certainly take longer than the Quaker instant packets or even oatmeal made from regular rolled oats. The recipe I’m sharing with you today uses steel cut oats which are the nubby bits of the oat groat (vs rolled oats which are steamed and rolled to create a flat, quicker-cooking flake) that take a little longer to cook but create a really toothsome, sophisticated oatmeal. It takes about thirty minutes to make a steel cut oatmeal, but it’s largely inactive time — I find I can get the water, milk and oats into the pot and catch up on some emails or read the paper and the porridge is done. That being said, I realize for most of us this will be more of a weekend recipe rather than a race-out-the-door-Wednesday affair; one of the reasons I organized my book into sections (Busy Weekdays, Slow Sunday, and Brunch) is because I think most of us eat a very different kind of breakfast on a hectic work day than on a leisurely weekend, and I wanted Whole-Grain Mornings to be a useful reference throughout the year — for all the different ways we eat, crazy and calm alike. So without further ado, let’s talk oatmeal and porridge and how to make the best on your block. In the book, I go into further detail, but I want to share a few tips with you here today:
How to Rock Your Morning Oats
1. Toast Your Oats!
A common complaint with oatmeal is that it’s mushy and gluey, and I’ve certainly had my fair share of this type of warm cereal. But when I moved in with Sam, he introduced me to the fine (and simple) art of toasting your oats in a little bit of butter before making your porridge. This draws out their nutty flavor but also helps them keep their integrity in the hot cooking liquid so they don’t just collapse into one another. It’s the only way we do it around here.
2. Use a Bigger Pot Than You Think You Need
Oats need a little bit of real estate. Don’t we all? No, but really, if you can use a large pot to allow your oats to sit in a nice, single layer you’ll end up with a more toothsome porridge than if you used a small pot where they’re all jammed on top of one another and you have to stir more frequently (see #4 below for an explanation). It seems odd and a waste of a large pot, but trust me on this one.
3. Add the Oats Only When the Water Boils
The less time the oats have to hang out with cold water, the better. When I make oatmeal and add the oats and cold water together and bring them to a boil — my porridge is always on the gummier side than if I add the toasted oats right into the hot water. I know there’s science involved here in some regard, but I suppose it just makes sense that you don’t want to soak your oats in cold water as they’re heating up — they’ll have that much more time to soften before really cooking — not really what we’re going for here.
4. Stir Infrequently
Somewhere at some point in time (maybe with the resurgence of polenta popularity?), people began to think that you should really vigorously stir your oatmeal and porridge. If you do this, you will 100% of the time have gummy, unglamorous porridge. Stirring oats (and most grains) will slowly break them down; they’ll lose their shape and delicious, slightly chewy porridge will elude you forever.
5. Celebrate Loose Porridge
I think of oatmeal and porridge much like I do cookies: You know how when cookies cool, they almost always become firmer? When oatmeal and porridge sit off the heat source, they seize up slightly and firm up which isn’t what most of us look for in the perfect bowl of warm cereal. I tend to add a bit more cooking liquid than some recipes require, am never afraid to keep adding liquid to get the porridge where I’d like it to be, and always pull it off the heat once the oats are soft and chewy — but also, while the porridge still seems a little looser than you think it should be. That way, by the time you’re serving it up into bowls, it will be just right.
Can You Really Reheat Leftovers? Yes, yes and yes! I know that it seems like there’s no way day-old porridge could be any good but add a good glug (or two or three) of liquid like almond milk, milk or even water and heat it very slowly on the stovetop only stirring as need be to incorporate the liquid and loosen up the oats — and reheated oatmeal and porridge is almost as good as the first day. We just had some this morning, in fact.
Now before we get to this wintery breakfast recipe, I wanted to give you a peek inside my cookbook, Whole-Grain Mornings. I realize I’ve done kind of a sporadic job of talking about it here, and I probably could’ve been more deliberate and organized in sharing the process with you all. Remember when we talked about the photo shoot … and way back when when I announced the project? Well the day is almost here: the book comes out December 31st (although I’ve been telling people January 1st because I like the symbolism of a whole new approach to breakfast for the new year). My publisher, Ten Speed Press, put together a PDF that gives you a peek, demonstrating how the book is organized seasonally with both sweet and savory breakfast recipes using whole grains and natural sugars. Sam also designed a beautiful, beautiful website for the book where you can learn more about purchasing (you can pre-order now and it’ll ship soon!) and find out where I’ll be this winter/spring promoting it (I hope you’ll come out, all you Seattleites, Portlanders, San Franciscans and Vancouver-dwellers; I’d love to meet you all).
While there is so much more I could say about the book here, I’ll just close by saying that we’ve been cooking from it quite a bit lately — ever since getting the galley in the mail (and now we have a real copy that’s slowly getting marked up and bookmarked). When all the recipes lived on my computer, it seemed more like work to pull them up and cook from the screen but now that I have a real-life copy of the book, I’ve been moving back into the pages and back into the seasons and making myself at home. I think that’s a good sign — maybe the best sign– if I pull up a chair after spending so much time with these recipes and pages, I so hope that you’ll pull one up, too.
Take a Peek ….
I love this cranberry-ginger sauce and made a similar version for Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago. At the time, I started spooning leftovers into my morning yogurt and oatmeal — the double hit of ginger adds warmth and the citrus adds a brightness that elevates morning oats into something truly special. You will likely have a little more cranberry-ginger sauce than you’ll need for the amount of porridge here, which is a good thing as it’s wonderful spooned on top of just about anything or slathered onto rustic toast. You can make the sauce up to two days in advance.
For the Steel Cut Oatmeal:
For the Cranberry-Ginger Sauce:
For the Oats: In a large sauté pan, melt the butter and add the steel cut oats. Toast for 4-5 minutes on medium heat or until fragrant (will smell slightly nutty).
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, bring the almond milk, water, salt, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to a slow boil over medium heat. Add the toasted oats and gently stir to incorporate them into the liquid. Return to a boil, then partially cover the pot and decrease the heat to low, cooking until the porridge has thickened and the oats have softened, about 25-30 minutes. You’re looking for a porridge that will be a little loose when you pull it off the stove – it will continue to thicken off the heat.
For the Cranberry-Ginger Sauce: Bring the cranberries, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon stick, ginger, cloves, and orange juice to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Cover the mixture and allow it to cook on medium-low heat for 5-7 minutes, or until the cranberries are just beginning to burst and you notice the mixture thickening.
Add the chopped candied ginger and orange zest and stir to combine. Simmer uncovered for an additional 1 to 2 minutes, or until cranberries have burst and are softening into more of a sauce (it will continue to thicken off the heat, too). Remove the cinnamon stick. If you like a looser sauce, add water, 2 tablespoons at a time.
To serve: Ladle large spoonfuls of porridge into bowls and top with toasted almonds, cranberry sauce and a little cream if you like (we do).
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.