An ode to porridge

Porridge purists should  look away now as it probably constitutes oatmeal high treason to tinker with a national treasure. I do, honestly, enjoy porridge in its purest form: slowly stirred to creaminess with just a pinch of salt, topped with brown sugar or golden syrup and milk. That’s the way my grandmother made it for me as a child, and I still like to cook it her way – a bit thicker than sophistication allows, so it spins like an oatmeal island in a milky lake.

But at the risk of being clonked with a spurtle by the porridge police, I felt the urge this grey old January day to have a bit of fun with grey old porridge. It wasn’t so much the basic porridge I wanted to play with, I just wanted to add some sparkle to it.

Porridge oats come in a range of varieties, all of which produce a different final texture. I won’t go into the detail here, because Sybil Kapoor explained it beautifully in the Guardian a while back for those who want details on oats in all its manifestations. Neither will I pronounce on basic porridge making. Felicity Cloake tested a range of methods before coming up with her own rather lovely way to cook it.

All I will say is that my husband favours cooking the oats in half water, half milk because the result is so voluptuous, but that’s too much for me of a morning. If simmered slowly to allow the starch to do its thing (about 20 minutes I reckon), and stirred constantly, cooking oats in just water is just fine. I use a ratio of one cup oats to two-and-a-half cups water – which might appear an unnecessary quantity of liquid at first – but delivers perfect creaminess if simmered slowly. And it’s surprising how far its stretches – one cup of oats is ample to get four of us breakfasted.

I started this exercise not with porridge porridge, but rice porridge. I’d read of a version eaten in Finland at Christmas, and it sounded  too decadent not to try. I melted a knob of butter in a saucepan, and stirred in 1 cup of risotto rice, then added hot milk gradually (with a spoon of sugar added to the milk pan help the flavour along) just as you would with stock. I stirred  constantly for about 20 minutes until the rice was just so.

Rice porridge

Rice porridge with damson jam

Girl Child and I sat down to eat this with a splodge of damson jam and a splosh of milk on top, and my goodness me.  As well as looking pretty as a picture, it was creamy divine. Don’t do what Girl Child did and add too much jam, as this is a very rich breakfast indeed. In fact, it’s probably more a pudding than a meal to set you up for the day, but hey.

The Bircher porridge I made next was a much more virtuous beast. Bircher muesli is one of my favourite breakfasts because I can’t seem to get enough of the taste of raw soaked oats.  Among the gazillion words written about matters porridge on the internet, I’d noticed that some people toast their oats with a little butter before simmering. I can now report that this is a pretty good trick and imparts quite a nutty flavour – but do watch that the oats don’t catch in the frying pan.

Bircher porridge

  • Knob of butter
  • 1 cup porridge oats
  • 2.5 cups water
  • 1 apple, chopped into small dice
  • 1 pear, grated
  • 2 tablespoons golden syrup
  • small handful nuts (not hazelnuts as they’re overpowering here)
  • small handful cranberries or other dried fruit
  • small handful mixed seeds

Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the oats and stir well. Toss over a medium heat until fragrant – this should take no longer than a couple of minutes. Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, add the toasted oats and lower the heat. Simmer very gently, stirring constantly, until the porridge is thick but not yet completely tender, about 15 minutes. Add the diced apple and continue stirring for a further 5 minutes, or until the oats are cooked through. Remove from the heat and mix in the remaining ingredients. Let the porridge stand for five minutes before serving with fresh fruit and milk.

Bircher porridge

Next up was banana, pecan and maple syrup porridge, which seems to be  heading back in the direction of pudding, I know. But then again it’s no more of a dessert than muesli is. This one doesn’t really need a recipe. Just toss a handful of pecans with a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup and a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg. Spread out on a baking try lined with parchment and toast in a medium oven for about 8 minutes, or until the syrup has begun to caramelize, the nuts are toasted and you can smells deliciousness coming from the oven. Meanwhile, cook your porridge,  adding a finely chopped banana halfway through. When the porridge is cooked, stir through the toasted pecans and serve with an extra swirl of maple syrup and some extra fruit if you like.

Banana porridge ideas

Banana, pecan and maple porridge

I was in two minds whether to include this final version or not. Let’s just say I drew the curtains, locked the doors and tried it out in private so I coud be sure no-one was looking. I’m not sure if I would cook this often, but the nuts and dried fruit make this actually quite delicious.

Cook the porridge as you normally would, then remove from the heat and add 60g blanched almonds that you have lightly toasted in a pan, 50g of grated plain chocolate (dark chocolate is too bitter here) and a handful of dried cranberries. Stir through until the chocolate is melted and incorporated.

Top with milk and enjoy joyfully, behind closed doors if you feel guilty.