This is an homage to oats. Fair warning if you think oats, oatmeal and rolled oats are old-fashioned. And don't belong in your cold weather kitchen. You may miss out on some fine dishes.
Let's start out with what I didn't know about Avena sativa, the grain that favours a northern growing conditions. We ate oatmeal as kids, or porridge. Generous amounts of brown sugar and milk. But when it came to washing the pot, a geography test - any kind of test, Latin declensions, irregular French verbs - would get me out of cleaning the pot, porridge stuck bottom and sides.
It was on my honeymoon in Kingston Jamaica that I learned about nutmeg in porridge. What a revelation. Freshly grated nutmeg is still my favourite flavour, but cinnamon will do in a time pinch. Into the mixture of 1/3 cup rolled oats and 1 cup water goes a little handful of raisins or dried cranberries or dried cherries or slivered apricots. Plus nutmeg and a very few grains of salt. Four minutes in the microwave and there's breakfast.
Then too it's fine to add honey, flax seeds, chopped nuts, maple syrup.Even blueberries, diced apple, pear or banana and I know people who dollop applesauce over their oatmeal or use apple juice instead of water to cook the oats. With these additions you don't need sugar, although milk is still a must.
And we ate oatmeal cookies, long before adding chocolate was on the horizon - but big fat black raisins or chopped dates were. All the while we called the hot cereal "oatmeal". But what went into the pot was really rolled oats. We seemed oblivious to the simply crushed or chopped oat kernels (groats) called steel cut, Irish or Scotch oats.
[caption id="attachment_762" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="From left to right, steel cut (Irish/Scotch) oats, large flake (old-fashioned) rolled oats, quick-cooking rolled oats"]
In 1877 in the United States, the Quaker Oat Company created rolled oats by steaming oat kernels, then flattening them into flakes. While there is a loss of flavour, the flakes cooked more quickly for breakfast, became the accepted version of oats, and opened up a whole new world of baking. Think date squares, oatmeal cookies (now with coconut, pecans, dried cherries, chocolate, white and dark), granola, muesli, Queen Elizabeth Cake, apple crumble, muffins, breads and more.
Over the last few years, real oatmeal or Irish/Scotch/steel-cut oats have had a revival. And while for your morning cereal, the longer time the chunky bits take to cook might encourage an oat lover to make a whole batch ahead and reheat as needed. Bulk stores, health food outlets and farmers' markets are where you can get this kind of oats. In my opinion, it's for breakfast that they shine, leaving baking to the realm of rolled oats.
[caption id="attachment_763" align="alignleft" width="450" caption=""Rice of the Prairies", aka as oats. Cook some with your favourite long grain rice and serve with warming stews, chilis and curries. Or add a small handful when simmering a homemade vegetable soup."]
As for rolled oats, there are two recipes that are ideal for preholiday baking, and frankly, for keeping in your repertoire for the year round. One's for savoury occasions, the second, in the shortbread tradition, perfect for a cookie exchange and the de rigueur cookie plate at holiday time.
Nova Scotia Oatcakes
Like oatmeal cookies, but not nearly as sweet, oakcakes are just about the best crunchy cracker base for a variety of cheese, especially blue cheese or well aged Cheddar. In Nova Scotia where this recipe originated, oatcakes are such a popular regional specialty they are often tucked into a bread baskets, frequently beside slices of moist oatmeal brown bread. In the province, Tim Horton's sells oatcakes along with the usual scones and doughnuts. In case you don't fancy the cheeses mentioned above, oatcakes, butter and jam are a wicked breakfast/snack combo. Any jam, although with a name like Baird, marmalade is recommended.
3 cups (750 mL) large flake rolled oats
1-1/2 cups (375 mlL) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) baking soda
1/2 cup (125 mL) packed brown sugar
1 cup (250 mL) cold butter, cubed
1/2 cup (125 mL) ice water
. Line 2 rimless baking sheets with parchment paper or grease; set aside.
. In a large bowl, whisk together the rolled oats, flour, salt and baking soda; work in the brown sugar, using your fingers if necessary to combine dry ingredients.
. Sprinkle with butter. With a pastry blender, cut in butter until the ingredients are crumbly. (Because of the flakes, this will take longer than cutting butter into flour alone.) Sprinkle ice water over the oats mixture, tossing them with a fork to moisten the dry ingredients evenly.
. With your hands, press the dough together. The dough will be a little sticky; dust your fingers with flour to solve this problem.
. On a floured surface or floured pastry cloth, press into a rectangle; divide in half.
. On a floured pastry cloth or between two sheets of floured waxed paper and using a rolling pin, roll out half of the dough at a time into 12 x-9-inch (30 x 23 cm) rectangle, 1/4-inch (5 mm) thick. With a pizza cutter or blade ofa long chefs knife, trim the edges; cut dough into 3-inch (8 cm) squares. Cut each square diagonally in half. Reroll and shape the scraps for a baker's oatcake.
. Transfer to prepared baking sheets, separating oat cakes slightly. Bake in centre of 350°F (180°C) oven until golden brown on bottom and top is darkened slightly, about 15 minutes. Let cool on the pans for 5 minutes.
. Transfer to racks to cool. (Make-ahead: Layer with waxed paper in airtight containers and store at room temperature for up to a week or freeze for up to a month.)
. Makes about 48 oatcakes.
Oats and Chocolate Shortbread
In a sweet cookie like this brown sugar shortbread, a bittersweet chocolate is the best foil. While you can use chocolate chips - the small ones deliver chocolate in every bite, I like to buy a quality chocolate bar and chop it to about the same size as chocolate chips, especially for this cookie. This recipe is based on one found in the December 2009 issue of Canadian Living
1 cup (250 mL) butter
1/2 cup (125 mL) packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla
1/4 cup (50 mL) cornstarch
3/4 cup (175 mL) quick-cooking rolled oats (not instant)
1-1/4 cups (300 mL) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (175 mL) chopped bittersweet chocolate or chocolate chips
. Line 2 rimless baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mat; set aside.
. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and brown sugar until light. Beat in the salt and vanilla.
. With a wooden spoon, stir in the cornstarch, then the rolled oats and finally the flour. Sprinkle the chocolate over the surface of the dough and stir in just long enough to combine.
. Divide the dough in half; place each on a 12-inch (30 cm) length of waxed paper. Shape the dough into a rough log. Using the paper, shape and roll the log into a smooth 9-inch (23 cm) length. Wrap in the paper, twist the ends to seal and chill until semi-firm, about 30 minutes.
. Remove the rolls from the fridge. Reroll in the paper to make sure the log is round and hasn't developed a flat side. Return to the fridge to chill until firm, about 30 minutes.
. Using a serrated or good chefs knife, cut rolls, one at a time, into 1/2-inch (1.25 cm) slices; place about 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) apart on prepared baking sheets. (Make-ahead: cover baking sheets with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 1 day.)
. Bake one sheet at a time in the centre of a 275°F (140°C) oven until bottoms are lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Let cool on the pan set on a rack for 5 minutes. Transfer to a rack to finish cooling. (Make-ahead: Store layered between waxed paper in an airtight container for up to a week, or freeze for up to a month.)
. Makes about 36 cookies.
Real Oatmeal Porridge
In Scotland and Ireland, the whole oat kernel or groat is ground or crushed into oatmeal of various coarseness. In bulk stores, look for steel cut oats. A pot of this real oatmeal takes about 40 minutes to simmer on top of the stove. It's chewiness is one of the pleasures of real oatmeal porridge.
For 4 servings, bring 4 cups (1 L) water to the boil. Stir in 1 cup (250 mL) steel cut oats; stir while the mixture comes back to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the porridge thickens, about 30 minutes. Add a sprinkle of salt if desired.