This week has seen our household knocked down by colds. Nothing actually serious, but instead that dreary, endless low-level poorliness that struggles to justify time off or desertion of duties. We have armed ourselves with Lemsip and positive mental attitudes, as if we can think ourselves well. My desk is a graveyard of balsam tissues and vitamin blister packs. But there is only one thing that has made me really feel a bit better: porridge.
Bear with me, if you are a porridge denier. Friend, I too hated porridge until this one entered my life. I had no time for those Instagram posts lauding its deliciousness; I dismissed them, convinced they must be sponsored, because who would rather eat porridge than, well, not eat? Let me be clear: I wasn’t ambivalent towards porridge as a child, I loathed it. Loathed it powerfully, and vocally, in a way that only a child can.
When my mother died, my father learnt how to make porridge, and would sweetly ask me the night before if I would like some in the morning, eager to soak the oats overnight. But without fail, I refused and, I’m ashamed to say, not with a particularly good grace.
So what changed? Well, I caught a cold. Spending several hours a day in small, cold classrooms, and tightly packed, hot kitchens, I’m surprised it’s taken so long before I’ve succumbed.
I’m sure that I’m not alone in reverting to childhood succour when poorly: the soups my mother made or, let’s be real, heated up to heal me. Bottles of orange Lucozade bought from the off licence over the road and brandished like talismans, tiny plates of piles of gingernut biscuits and apples sliced uniformly and served alongside wrapped Babybels.
But, peculiarly, I find myself often longing for dishes which I hated as a child: fish pie, shepherd’s pie, chilli con carne and, now, porridge. I think those dishes that I crave most are those which speak of effort, and so are bound up with care and nursing and love. Much to my surprise, I needed porridge.
I am, it turns out, very particular about my porridge. It absolutely cannot be, in any conceivable way, slimy. It musn’t be set. It should just barely hold its shape when lifted. It should be smooth, but still fluid, almost silken. It musn’t be too sweet, and it must be hotter than would meet with Goldilocks’ approval.
This porridge, then, is my platonic porridge: it uses not just jumbo oats, but pinhead oats too, which are nubbly and nutty and don’t submit to the milk in a one note texture. It is impossibly creamy thanks to slow, gentle cooking, and whole milk. This porridge doesn’t need cream – although the milk powder, whilst sounding like something from times of rationing, works wonders here.
The compote is simply a jar of some of my favourite flavours. The syrup that is produced by this recipe is so much more than the sum of its parts, and tastes not quite like Christmas — not that brash, carol service taste of cloves and mace — but like a memory of the best bits of Christmas. It goes like this..
Perfect Pinhead Porridge with Spiced Plum Compote
Makes: 2 portions of porridge and leftover compote
Takes: 20 minutes, including cooking time
Bakes: No time at all
For the compote
75g soft brown sugar
1 small star anise
1 small cinnamon stick
1 tsp vanilla paste or 1/2 vanilla pod
For the porridge
60g jumbo oats
60g pinhead oats
1 tablespoon light muscovado sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons milk powder
1 pint whole milk
1. First, make the compote. Slice the plums into small, bitesize segments, and pop them in the pan with the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a gently simmer for ten minutes.
2. Test the plums, they should be very tender, but not falling apart, still in defined slices. If they are still firm, continue cooking until they reach this stage. If they are ready, lift them out of the syrup using a slotted spoon, and place them in a jar.
3. Reduce the syrup to single thread stage: when you lift a little of the syrup up on the back of a spoon and (carefully!) touch it, it should be tacky, and just form a thread between finger and thumb. But don’t worry: this will still be delicious even if you slightly under or overcook it. Strain off the spices, and pour over the plums and set to one side to cool just while you cook the porridge.
4. Place all the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and place over a medium heat. Stir constantly and, when the mixture reaches a gentle boil, turn the heat down and continue stirring. Remove from the heat when the mixture is almost at your desired thickness and set to one side for 10 minutes.
5. Spoon the porridge into bowls, and the plums on top of that, with extra syrup drizzled around the edges.
6. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
Depending on your serving size or enthusiasm for plums, this is likely to make more compote than you need. I keep mine in a clean, sealed jar in the fridge and add it to subsequent breakfasts: it is particularly good with honey flavoured Greek yoghurt with a scattering of granola – and is as lovely cold as it is warm.