Monday, 16 April 2012

Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal

(...or, "look, crumble for breakfast - but it's healthy!")

Sometimes I think that recipes shouldn't be allowed to tell you how many people they're supposed to serve. I wonder who those portion-control fascists are, that believe they have the right to dictate to us exactly how much of a glorious pan of food we are legitimately allowed to dole out to ourselves and devour with a clear conscience. I wonder why we allow ourselves to trundle on in this Nineteen Eighty-Four style existence, nonchalantly turning a blind eye as the food police worm their way into all aspects of our lives. No longer are we allowed to eat one of those big packs of sushi for lunch; no, the packaging tells us "One serving = half a pack" and then proceeds to blare out those guilt-inducing red and orange traffic light symbols that mean we couldn't enjoy scoffing a whole pack even if we tried, because those garish warning colours are now forever imprinted on our retinas, basically indicating that a single mouthful of the other half of the packet will send our blood sodium levels skyrocketing into stroke-inducing territory, and our arteries to immediately clog with lipids and refuse to let anything important - like blood - past.

Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but I do have a point, I think. Recipe serving guidelines are totally arbitrary, given that it's impossible for them to cater to the hugely diverse variation of appetites in our population. One of those packs of gnocchi you can buy in the chilled section of the supermarket ostensibly serves three or four; I once lived with a boy for whom it was merely a component of his lunch (the others being bacon and pesto).

My biggest irritation comes from those recipes that make wildly outrageous and vague claims like "serves 4-6". What does that EVEN MEAN? "Serves six normal people but four MASSIVE BLOATERS - if you only get four portions out of this luscious lasagne or sizzling stew, prepare to feel really crap about yourself, fatty"?

Yet I have to admit that I, too, conform to the pressure to tell the world how many people one of my (utterly fabulous) recipes will serve. 

And I'm ashamed to admit it, readers, but...

...sometimes I lie.

For example, my recent rhubarb crumble cheesecake. Incredible. Astounding. A work of pure creative genius. In a moment of mendacity I had the nerve to tell you that it serves six. Except this is a purely hypothetical and an estimate totally lacking in any factual foundation, because the first time I made it, I ate over a quarter by myself. 

So should I assume that all my readers share my rampant and sometimes indecent desire for that luscious menage à trois of cream cheese, rhubarb, and buttery crumble, and tell them that the cake serves four? Or should I - as I did - realise that I'm generally the exception to the rule and can cram far more dessert down my oesophagus than any normal human being should, and therefore give my serving estimate with that in mind?

The perils of recipe writing.

But really, there is nothing more disheartening than picking up a nice lunch-to-go from the chiller aisle of a supermarket (well yes, that is disheartening in itself, but read on for what's even worse), thinking it looks just right, size-wise, for the current black hole of starvation you're feeling in the pit of your stomach, and then seeing "serves 2" on the packet, or the nutrition information for "One serving (half a pack)". Firstly, is this just some sick ploy to make us all even more obese? Because I'm pretty sure no one in their right mind is likely to eat half a sandwich or salad or box of sushi for lunch and be able to leave the rest sitting on their desk or in the office fridge without it plaguing them, haunting them, and eventually driving them to crippling, dribbling despair that results in them clawing their way across the office floor with sweat pouring from their ears as they try to resist the repellent force-field around said lunch item that forbids them eating the whole thing.

The same goes for puddings. I picked up a lovely-looking sticky toffee pudding in Tesco the other day. Rustic. Gooey. Vaguely home-made looking, though that was clearly just clever marketing and it had actually been lovingly created by the mechanical hands of a piece of factory equipment. In China. It was packaged in one of those foil trays with a cardboard lid, like you get for takeaways. Thinking it'd be just perfect for me and the boyfriend, I was about to put it in the basket.

I should have done. Should have just done it. Got it over with. Thrown it in the basket and never looked back. 

But for some reason I glanced at the packaging (one thing you must never do: look at the nutrition information for a sticky toffee pudding), and lo and behold, there it was. The dreaded words. 

"Serves four".

Yeah, I thought. Four people who really hate life. Four children, maybe. Or four birds. 

I had to put it back. As much as I'm trying to resist the tyranny of the serving guideline fascists, I realised in that sad and sticky moment that I am their slave. They will always rule me. Always make me feel guilty about the sizeable amount I'm able - no, scratch that - I need to eat for lunch. Always make me cringe at the capacity of my stomach to squirrel away anything combining butter and sugar in very uncouth amounts. I hate them.

Anyway, you're probably wondering where this rather vitriolic diatribe came from. The reason I began this post in this way is that the recipe I'm going to tell you about today, by the wonderful Heidi Swanson (writer of the superb blog 101 Cookbooks and author of the inspirational cookbook Super Natural Every Day), has inflicted on me a similar sensation of unpleasant gluttonous guilt. The reason being that under the recipe I am going to tell you about, she writes these ominous words: "Serves 6 generously, or 12 as part of a larger brunch spread".

I can eat the whole thing in three helpings.

Which makes me equivalent, in stomach-expansion terms, to either two or four people. 

Which makes me, quite frankly, disgusting.

I can't help it. This recipe is utterly incredible. For good reason, it's become a widespread food blog classic, frequently popping up in different guises on the internet; I'd wager a large proportion of all the bloggers out there have given it a go at some point, either in its original form or adding some variation of their own. Heidi Swanson is a genius; I always marvel at the originality and creative flair of her recipes, and this is a case in point. It's simple but totally addictive and wonderful.

The original recipe uses bananas, sliced and used to line a baking dish, over which you scatter blueberries and then a mixture of oats, nuts, cinnamon, sugar (or maple syrup), salt and baking powder. Over this you pour another mixture of milk, egg, melted butter and vanilla extract. After a final scattering of more nuts and blueberries, it's ready to bake (salivating yet?). In the heat of the oven, the milk soaks through the oats and makes them moist and tender underneath, while the top sets to a crispy, crunchy crust. The juice from the fruit bubbles up around the crust, leaving those classic gooey, sweet, crispy edges so beloved of things like crumble, cobbler and pie.

It's basically a crumble, but without the flour or (most of) the butter. Soft, sweet fruit; crunchy nuts; gooey, chewy topping. I've made the banana and blueberry version three times now. Heidi's original recipe suggests walnuts, but I much prefer to make it with pecans, which are one of my favourite nuts and work so well with bananas. Walnuts I find a bit too bitter. 

Anyway, this is unbelievable. You'd never have thought such a simple idea could be so divine. I'd heartily recommend the banana and blueberry version, but I had a load of lovely Yorkshire rhubarb lying around so decided to try a version with that instead. I swapped the pecans for almonds, the vanilla extract for almond extract, and the bananas for chunky pink sticks of rhubarb. These softened in the oven, releasing their tart-sweet juice and perfuming their coating of oats with its syrupy goodness. 

I guess the reason this dish has won such a devout following is that it's basically a template for your mind and your stomach to run wild with. Change the fruits; change the nuts; change the vanilla to something else. Its basic make-up is something that cannot be beaten, an irresistible contrast in textures and flavours. Above all, it's wonderful breakfast or brunch food, designed to set you up for the day and still be healthy while tasting decadently like dessert. It also reheats well, so if you want to make it for just you (do it! DO IT!), you can keep it in the fridge and warm up portions in the microwave. It's actually even better after a couple of days, when all the flavours have mingled together. 

So I'm sorry, Heidi, but I really do question your suggestion that this could serve up to twelve people. It's just too damn good.

Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal ('ll go with four big breakfast fans)
(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)

400g rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths
4 tbsp vanilla sugar (or caster sugar) 
200g blueberries

200g rolled or 'jumbo' oats (not instant oats)
60g almonds, roughly chopped
60g brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
475ml milk
1 large egg
3 tbsp melted butter
2 tsp almond extract
3 tbsp flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Butter an 8in x 8in baking dish, or a similar-sized dish (I use a small Le Creuset one). Scatter the rhubarb over the bottom and toss to coat in the vanilla/caster sugar. Add half the blueberries. [If making the banana version of this dish, omit the sugar - rhubarb needs it because it's quite sour, but banana doesn't].

Mix together the oats, chopped almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. 

In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and almond extract.

Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the rhubarb and spread out so it forms a fairly even layer. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the oats, and give the dish a couple of bashes on the worktop to make sure the milk is evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the rest of the blueberries and the flaked almonds.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the oat mixture has set and turned crunchy on top. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

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  1. I love this post! I totally agree with you especially concerning ready meals. I don't buy them anymore but I used to occasionally check their values and it always got me wondering wether they were meant for adults or children! Same goes for when you're making brownies, how can an 8in x 8in baking dish make 24 servings? Seriously? That's what, a mouthfull? Of course it'll be low fat if you barely have anything to chew! Notice I'm not even mentioning crumble here as to be honest i think all recipes for crumble should serve one!

    I'm definitely going to make this though, sounds really good! I don't know how the original recipe author managed to get 6 or 12 servings with a 8in x 8in baking dish either but I'm willing to give it a try!

  2. I couldn't agree more about serving suggestions. I never look at these or the nutrition info because I don't really want to know (!) and surely if you eat a balanced enough diet, it doesn't matter anyway. Often they're only there on those pernicious ready meal-esque dishes where one tiny water injected chicken breast is pumped full of so much rubbish and so many calories that somehow it becomes a serving for two...
    On a less ranty note, this looks absolutely delicious. I really must get my hands on her cookbook, have heard so many good things!

  3. This is one oatmeal I will not hesitate to eat - scrumptious ingredients :D

    Choc Chip Uru

  4. wow I love this! Featuring it on my Facebook fan page today

  5. This looks and sounds SOOoo good! I am in love with rhubarb so I am dying to try this ... I think this definitely must be on the BEST food blogger recipes Pinterest board, so I'm pinning it there! Thank you for a fantastic recipe. :)

  6. Annie - thought you'd love this, as you are a fellow crumble (and porridge?) fan! I doubt you'll be able to make 6 servings out of it though!

    Kate - definitely buy it, I was sceptical at first but it's really great. Also wonderful for tasty vegetarian meals - the orzo with broccoli pesto is fabulous!

    Guru Uru - thanks!

    Alison - that's great, thank you!

    Ann - thanks so much, it's lovely to know people think it's worth pinning!

  7. That does look like a great dish! I'm often perplexed by serving sizes. Like a soup recipe that serves 4 - is that 4 for lunch when you've been outdoors all morning and you are freezing, or 4 in dainty cups at the start of a 4 course dinner when you've been noshing peanuts for an hour with drinks?

  8. I recently wrote about uses for frozen fruits (blueberries included!) and now I think I'll need to update my blog to talk about some more uses thanks to what you have here. We keep lots of these ingredients on hand all the time - I think this might mark an occasion for an experiment! Thanks for the tips.

  9. What a funny and heart warming post, made me chuckle. I've yet to get my hands on Heidi's new book, but your homemade variation has me positively drooling.

  10. Hee.hee, I don't generally eat crumble for breakfast but agreed, this is a wonderfully healthy not to mention beautiful version! Pinning it now :-).

  11. I feel the same way, especially about supermarket lunches! I just can never bring myself to buy them because I just KNOW I'll eat the whole thing and then hate myself for it. Sigh. Ignorance really is bliss at times.

    I would feel no guilt about devouring at LEAST a third of this. It's filled with such health after all!

  12. I love oatmeal. I love fruit. It just makes sense!!

    Theres a batch of this in my oven right now! It's got strawberries, apples and blueberries, with almonds and cashews in the oat mixture. I'm ready to just crawl in there and eat it, it smells so good!!

  13. Wow. That looks absolutely fantastic and so homey and healthy too. :-) I'd love this on a cold Saturday morning with a huge steaming mug of milky coffee. :-)

  14. I gotta try this! It sounds perfect.

  15. Agreed!! The first time I made it my husband and I almost ate the whole thing by ourselves! Just too too good, and can't wait to try this with rhubarb!

  16. Hi Ellie. I have finally made my first baked oatmeal! I don't like porridge, despite trying to train myself over the years, but I really enjoyed this. I did the 'original' version with blueberries and bananas and added toasted pecans rather than walnuts. I loved the hot fruit and crunchy topping and even enjoyed the porridgy bit, as it was baked and therefore not sloppy which is my main issue with porridge (I dislike rice pudding for a similar reason, although I adore risotto, strangely!). With lots of natural yogurt and maple syrup, it was fantastic and I will certainly be making it again. I am a convert! Thank you for showing me the light!

  17. Amy - I'm so pleased! I'm with you on rice pudding, I really hate it, and porridge is the kind of thing that I SHOULD hate, being sloppy, but I completely love it. So glad you enjoyed this - the banana version I think is still the best, and I also use pecans instead of walnuts!


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