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Porridge: much more than gruel for fuel

Porridge 3

As the mornings become colder and darker, a bowl of fruit and yoghurt or a smattering of cold granola probably isn’t going to cut it anymore.

This is the season for warming morning sustenance, for cosying up in front of a steaming bowlful that will fill you with long-lasting energy for the day ahead.

Porridge is having a bit of a moment in the food world at the moment, beloved for its slow-release energy, its ease of preparation and its relative frugality. Where I live in Denmark, a trendy porridge stall has even made its way into the brand new food market, jostling for space alongside Thai, Vietnamese and traditional Danish stalls. Toppings here include everything from cauliflower, apple and parmesan to acai berries, chia seeds and almond butter.

Although I believe in porridge as a staple foodstuff for any season, it is a particularly welcome antidote to the chill nip of an autumn morning, a comforting blank canvas that can be adapted to suit your every need and craving.

One of my favourite things about porridge is that the toppings and embellishments can be tweaked according to whatever is bountiful, seasonal and delicious at any point of the year. Fruit compotes, toasted seeds, syrups and purees can be prepared in advance at the weekend and used to jazz up a weekday bowl of porridge in an instant. Here are some suggestions for turning a bowl of plain, warming oats into an autumnal breakfast fit for a king.

Perfect porridge

I find the perfect porridge ratio to be 1:5 oats to liquid. I use 100g rolled oats to 500ml liquid, although my morning bowlful is gigantic and often draws astonished comments, so you may want to use slightly less! I always add a pinch of salt to the oats before adding the liquid, and I think a 2:3 ratio of milk to water works best. I usually add a handful of dried fruit to the oats before adding the liquid and cooking everything, which plumps up nicely in the heat and adds texture and sweetness. I bring everything to the boil until it starts to bubble, then reduce the heat and simmer gently until the liquid has been absorbed. This takes around five minutes. Then it’s time to stir in any embellishments, or spoon into a bowl and top with an assortment of delicious additions.

Chopped pear, dried cranberries, honey, nutmeg, toasted almonds

Add a handful of dried cranberries to the oats when you start to cook them. When the porridge is nearly ready, stir in a small pear, chopped into 1.5cm dice, and a few gratings of fresh nutmeg. Spoon the pear porridge into a bowl and drizzle with honey (I like cinnamon honey, if you can find it), scatter with toasted almonds and grate over a little more nutmeg to finish.

Grated apple, blueberry compote, raisins

Put 300g blueberries in a small saucepan with a tablespoon of caster sugar, maple syrup or honey and a tiny splash of water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the berries start to burst and become juicy. Set aside (you can keep this in the fridge for several days). Add a handful of raisins to the porridge oats when you begin to cook them. Grate a small dessert apple, and stir into the porridge when it is nearly cooked. Spoon into a bowl and top with a dollop of the blueberry compote. This is also good with chopped banana instead of the grated apple.

Ginger roasted plums

This is one of my favourite autumn porridge toppings. Halve and stone a selection of seasonal plums (greengages work well too), place them cut side up in a baking dish and sprinkle with brown sugar, chopped stem ginger in syrup, a couple of tablespoons of the ginger syrup, and the zest and juice of an orange. Cover with foil and roast at 180C for around 30 minutes, or until tender and juicy. Serve hot or cold, spooned over porridge (this keeps well in the fridge for a few days).

Poached quinces in vanilla

A great way to make the most of a rather elusive autumn fruit. This also works with apples, should quinces elude you. Simply peel, core and dice quince into 2cm cubes or thin slices - use a sharp knife, as they can be tough! Place in a pan with enough water to just cover the fruit, the juice of half a lemon, a vanilla pod, split lengthways, and a little honey or maple syrup. I sometimes use a mixture of half quinces, half apples. Simmer gently until the fruit is just tender (apples will cook more quickly than quinces, so if using both apples and quinces add the apples a little later if you want them to keep their shape) and the liquid has thickened and become syrupy. I like this cold from the fridge, over hot porridge – the temperature contrast is lovely.

Spiced dried fruit and blood orange chai tea compote

Another favourite recipe, and gorgeous in late winter when blood oranges are in season (but you can use normal oranges too). Simmer a mixture of dried fruit (I like figs, apricots, cranberries and prunes) in enough chai tea (Earl grey works well too) to cover it by around an inch or so. Cook over a very gentle heat until the fruit has plumped up and most of the liquid has reduced, leaving a dark syrup (you can leave it to cool overnight for the fruit to plump up even more). Segment a couple of blood oranges, reserving any juice that escapes, and add the orange and juice to the compote. Serve warm or cold over hot porridge.

Vanilla and cardamom roasted rhubarb with pistachios

A good one for early winter forced rhubarb, which has a gorgeous bright pink colour and sweet flavour. Simply put 400g rhubarb, cut into 1.5-inch lengths, in a baking dish scattered with 3 tbsp caster sugar, the seeds from a vanilla pod and the crushed seeds of six cardamom pods. Add a small splash of water, cover with foil and roast at 180C for around 30 minutes, or until the rhubarb is tender but still holding its shape. Serve this warm or cold over porridge, topped with a small handful of roughly chopped pistachios for crunch.

Caramelised lime and vanilla pineapple with toasted coconut

One to wake up the tastebuds on a chill morning. Caramelise slices of pineapple in a mixture of butter, brown sugar, the seeds from a vanilla pod and the zest of a lime. You can also add a splash of rum – perhaps best on a weekend morning, though! Cook until sticky and bubbling, then add the juice of a lime and cook until syrupy. Spoon the pineapple and juices over hot porridge along with a scattering of toasted flaked coconut.

Elly McCausland is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, Seven. She has a passion for travel and all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings. When not concocting recipes or planning her next cultural odyssey, she is an English literature academic, specialising in children’s literature.