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Hot cereal dressed for the cold

Plump raisins, flavorful prunes, and charoseth liven up bowls of hearty grains.

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Breakfast: Add dried fruit and cinnamon to oatmeal for a chewy texture and a hint of spice.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff

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Just after we harvested the wheat on our farm, my mom would sometimes cook wheat berries for breakfast. My sister and I loved its springy, chewy texture. We would beg my mom to make it more often, but she seldom did because the wheat took so long to cook.

More often, we ate oatmeal or wheat cereal, which I liberally topped with butter and brown sugar making it more than palatable and perhaps establishing my love for hot cereal.

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Today when the weather turns cold, and especially on bone-chilling days, I still like to start my day with a bowl of hot cereal.

Fortunately, I have found that most stores stock a large variety of grains and hot cereals; some even stock wheat berries. You can reduce the cooking time for wheat to about a half hour by boiling the berries in water for a couple of minutes, then letting them soak for one hour. When I am not that ambitious, I buy a commercial package of wheat pilaf, whose texture is similar to the wheat I remember from my childhood, but has a relatively short cooking time.

I also love the steel-cut Irish oatmeal, but it needs to simmer 30 minutes. If I am organized in the evening, I prepare some in a double boiler so it can be ready in the morning. I put water on to boil in the bottom, then put the oatmeal and boiling water in the top, and cover. Once the water is boiling in the bottom, I turn off the burner and let it sit over night. In the morning, all that is required is to reheat the oatmeal.

I no longer use butter and a lot of sugar on my hot cereal, but I have developed some alternatives that I also love.

Raisins, of course, are always a good addition, but cold, hard raisins dumped on the top of cooked cereal is not very tasty. Cook the raisins with the oatmeal so they are soft and plump. Sometimes when I make wheat berries, I add low-fat coconut milk (1/2 cup for four servings of wheat) to the cooked wheat and allow it to simmer a few minutes until heated through. The coconut milk imparts a hint of coconut and a bit of sweetness. I also toss in a handful of golden raisins for sweetness and color.

A little cinnamon or a pinch of nutmeg along with raisins is an easy flavor enhancer for oatmeal. Sometimes I top oatmeal with a cherry and prune compote. Prunes have the unfortunate reputation of being stodgy, but they actually have a rich, bright flavor. I poach them with dried cherries and a cinnamon stick. When the fruit is soft and a thick golden syrup has formed, I add slivered almonds. This makes a sublime topping for hot cereal and no sugar is needed. It is especially good with steel-cut Irish oatmeal.

Another easy cereal topping is charoseth, a traditional Passover dish made from ground almonds, chopped apples, cinnamon, and dried fruits. A large spoonful is delicious on oatmeal, on one of the multigrain hot cereals, or a combination of the two. There are many recipes for charoseth, varying the fruits and nuts used.

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When the snow is falling and you need something warm to help you brave the day, take out a box of oatmeal and stir up a batch of steaming, hot cereal. While you're stirring at the stove, get your kids to make some toast, raisin is always nice, and turn on the weather report – they just might announce that everyone should stay at home.