A few winters ago, my parents, younger brother, and I packed a bag for a weekend camping trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We were going to see a show, but when you're in Lancaster, you really ought to plan to stay for a few days. Once you get there, you'll quickly realize you need much more than an afternoon to soak up the handmade quilts, chicken corn soup, and horse-drawn carts of whoopie pies.
I can't remember if we left early in the morning and arrived just in time for breakfast, or if we left the night before and ventured out into the icy chill to fill our bellies, but I do remember the baked oatmeal. Every Friday morning, there is an enormous farmer's market called The Green Dragon that calls itself a "unique carnival experience you have to see to believe!" While you won't find a Ferris wheel (but you might have luck finding a funnel cake stand), the market is a bustling hub in the center of endless fields. Naturally, we planned our trip around the odd hours of the market - it shouldn't be missed.
When we arrived in the early hours, the wind was so cold, so sharp, the kind of wind that cuts through your jeans and makes it impossible to bend your knees. I wore a purple thermal shirt under a checkered vest [complete with fuzzy faux-fur hood] and my mother didn't take her winter coat off all day. We tucked our chins into our collars and moved as quickly as our stiff jeans would allow, our boots crunching against the graveled parking lot with our eyes set on the prize: breakfast.
As soon as you walk through the muddy door, the one on the far side near the furniture and craft shops, you're met with the noise. It's difficult to explain the way it is, loud, yet muted, as if you hear chatter and cash registers and silverware clanking against plates but you can't seem to find where exactly each sound is coming from. As difficult as it was to bypass the pearly rhubarb on the produce stand and to ignore the art galleries, we shuffled toward the back of the market, the hodge-podge diner popped up on the right side across from the bakery, the one with the smoky warm haze of cooked sausage floating over top the booths.
Still frozen to the bone, we ended up sitting at the bar, if you want to call it that. It was so tiny, with stools so short that our knees banged off of the counter wall. It reminded me of something from a fairytale and I half expected a few of the Seven Dwarfs to come sidle up beside me. The paper menus were stained with coffee and grease but the counter was shining bright white under the fluorescent glow overhead. A waitress, who must've been about seventy or so - bless her heart, poured us hot cups of coffee and put her hand on her aproned hip when my father asked for ever more creamer each time she stopped by.
I think he ordered a sausage sandwich of some kind, but I had the baked oatmeal, and it was perfect. It came in a small plastic green bowl, a ragged square of it topped with golden raisins and a splash of milk, with a crisp top and a creamy interior, and it reminded me of creme brulee, only I was thwacking my spoon through a layer of oats instead of sugar. After a few spoonfuls of it, and I didn't even realize I was still shivering, my shoulders relaxed and I was filled with that sleepy-full feeling, not unlike the milk-coma that babies slip into after a warm bottle.
A few months after we returned home, I thought about that oatmeal again, and I tried to recreate it. Now, I didn't go flying blind into the kitchen all willy-nilly, I did use a recipe, but it was an unimpressive one. The oatmeal wasn't creamy in the least, and I'm not looking for porridge here, but there ought to be a noticeable difference between the crispy lid and custardy interior. I was left to a huge pan of it as no one else was remotely interested in something as bland sounding as oatmeal, and I didn't enjoy it all that much, so I tossed it and forgot about it for a good while, opting for homemade granola and yogurt instead.
Enter: Super Natural Every Day. The book that lives on my nightstand with an occasional trip to the kitchen. The book all the buzz is about. The book that finally put baked oatmeal back in my belly and forever in my heart. It's everything baked oatmeal should be - crackly topped with a milky interior, studded with juicy berries and crunchy almonds [or walnuts, I had almonds on hand, but you can use whatever you like], and piled on top of a layer of ripe bananas, it's a hearty, not-too-sweet breakfast to get you going on a weekend morning.
Now, I liked it fine and well, but I did sprinkle a fair amount of extra sugar on the top as it isn't very sweet, so I've increased the sugar from 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup in the recipe below. You can certainly scale it back down without adverse affect if you don't like your oatmeal quite as sweet. Also, my love for bananas is nothing if not loud and proud, but when I went for leftovers the next morning, they were too soft and mushy for my taste. Next time, I'll try a layer of thinly sliced apples (like this). If you try this, too, please report back.
Adapted from Super Natural Every Day, by Heidi Swanson.