Perhaps it was my mother’s stint at nursing college in Edinburgh, or her dubious MacGregor roots (she used to say she came from a long line of sheep-stealers – remember the film Rob Roy?) but she brought with her to our secluded Irish farm, a penchant for dressing us up in kilts (Royal Stewart and Black Watch tartan) and a determination that porridge feature frequently on my childhood breakfast menu, along with the daily dose of cod liver oil – a tablespoon in my orange juice to mask the taste… euch, some hope. We even had a spurtle to stir the oats with, sunwise of course, for luck.
Supermarkets here in Canada carry boxes and boxes of Quaker Oat So Simple, “a quick and convenient way of making perfect porridge in only two minutes”, in various flavours and back home in the UK there was Ready-Brek, a kind of babyfood for those who couldn’t remotely be described as babies anymore. I still remember the adverts promising a nucleo-thermal, full-body forcefield to anyone who began the day with a bowlful.
But making your own porridge, or oatmeal as it’s known here, is by far the healthiest and cheapest way and it’s neither difficult nor time consuming. You can experiment with different types of oats – we like McCanns steel cut Irish pinhead oats (me because, not only does each one ‘pop’ in your mouth when you chew, but they’re from a town close to where I grew up – Naas in Co. Kildare) and we’ve recently tried large flake wholegrain rolled oats which give a more defined appearance to the end result. Toasting the oats beforehand in a dry pan over a medium heat brings out their nutty flavour.
“Spare your breath to cool your porridge.”
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Cooking porridge is straightforward enough – follow the oats to water ratio on your packet or experiment to find your preferred ‘gloopiness quotient’; 1 part oats to 2 parts liquid is a good base to tweak from. The pinhead oats require soaking overnight with the lid on in freshly boiled water, but all that’s left to do in the morning is heat them through for 9-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, so they’re hardly a chore.
Traditionalists claim porridge must contain nothing more than oats, water and salt so that should be all the provocation you need to shake things up a little. Try mixing milk with the water (I find all milk a little too heavy first thing in the morning – only workable if you’re planning on not moving from the sofa for the next few hours – 1 part milk to 2 parts water is better). I still add salt even if I plan to sweeten, I think it helps the flavors stand out, but add it near the end. Salt can harden the oats and lessen their propensity to ‘cream up’, the bit when they release starch as they’re heating.
After bringing your oats and liquid to the boil while stirring frequently with a spurtle or the handle of a wooden spoon, turn down the heat and simmer, stirring every now and again, for ten minutes – add the salt midway. Finally, turn off the heat, cover and stand for five minutes before serving.
What you put in the finished product is up to you. A splosh of cold milk or cream girdling the mixture is a must in our house. My eldest daughter likes the crunch of brown sugar while my son prefers the smooth sweetness of honey. As a treat, some caramelised fruit goes down a storm! Recipe below…
White sugar Butter Ground cinnamon, cloves and a pinch of black pepper Star anise A generous tablespoon of golden syrup A glug of Amaretto Chopped apples/pears Raisins/sultanas Cranberries (dried or fresh) Nuts (broken walnuts, pecans, flaked almonds - whatever you like)
1. Cover the bottom of a dry pan with white sugar. Heat gently until the sugar starts to flush golden and add a knob of butter.
2.Throw in the cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and star anise, and stir in the golden syrup and Amaretto.
3. Add chopped apple, raisins/sultanas, cranberries, chopped/flaked nuts. A splash of apple juice at the end will loosen the mixture if it gets too stiff.
Spoon over porridge and DON’T BURN YOUR TONGUE!