Eating a hot breakfast is a challenge in the fall as mornings get darker and colder and we snuggle into warm beds until the last possible second. But eating a hot breakfast just makes the whole day better, don't you think? The answer is to make your evenings work for you, and to prepare a hot breakfast the night before. I have found that one of the best ways to do this is oatmeal. But oatmeal is mushy, you say! Reheated oatmeal for breakfast? No thanks. Well, hold on a minute. You haven't met steel cut oats, which are even better the morning after.
When I wrote my cookbook on healthier, fresher casseroles, Not Your Mother's Casseroles, I experimented with baked steel cut oats and found that I loved them even more when cooked in the oven. It's even more of a hands-off process, and the grains of oats cook up into perfectly chewy, al dente pearls in a thick, rich oatmeal.
So I took my basic recipe and tweaked it a bit for fall. This recipe is cooked up the night before, and what's more, it's baked, which means it is extra hands-off. I sauté a cup of pumpkin puree with a touch of butter, warm cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, to deepen the flavor and get rid of that raw taste of canned pumpkin. I toast the oats too, in a little more butter, and then the whole thing is baked with water and milk into a pot of oatmeal that tastes like the best of autumn. When reheated the next day a bowl of this stuff is even better: Thick, rich, and full of chewy pearls of oatmeal grains. With a drop of cream and a drizzle of maple syrup, this is one of the best fall breakfasts I can imagine.
Some baked oatmeals, I should note, have eggs added and are more like a breakfast cake or bar that can be scooped out in slices. This oatmeal is just oatmeal — no eggs. It's extra-thick, but it is still porridge.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided 1 1/2 cups steel cut oats 1 cup pumpkin or squash puree 1/3 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 2 cups milk 2 1/2 cups warm water 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat the oven to 375°F. In a 3-quart (or larger) saucepan or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. (Your burner shouldn't be on at full blast, but the butter should melt quickly.) When the butter foams up, stir in the oats and fry them, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes or until they smell toasted.
Push the oats up against the side of the pan, and drop the second tablespoon of butter in the now clear center of the pan. Dump in the pumpkin puree. Fry it in the butter, only stirring after about a minute. Stir in the sugar and spices and continue frying the puree for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the color darkens slightly and the raw smell disappears. It's OK if a few dark brown spots appear as the puree sticks to the pan.
Pour in the milk and whisk everything to combine. Whisk in the water, vanilla and salt. Put a lid on the pan and put it in the oven. Bake for 35 minutes. Take the pan out of the oven, and carefully lift the lid (be cautious as steam will billow out). Stir the oatmeal. It will look quite loose still, but the oats should be al dente and tender. The oatmeal will thicken rapidly as it cools.
Eat immediately with a drizzle of cream or milk and maple syrup, or let cool and then refrigerate. Heat up bowls in the microwave or on the stovetop.
• Slow Cooker Method: I have not tested this recipe in the slow cooker, so any experimentation is just that — experimentation! However, given my other experiences with slow cooker steel cut oats, I do believe that this would translate just fine to the slow cooker. Follow the stovetop steps, then transfer the toasted oats and pumpkin to a slow cooker. Whisk in the milk, water, vanilla, and salt, cook on LOW for 8 hours or overnight.