Hot cereal dressed for the cold

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

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.

CHERRY PRUNE TOPPING

1 cup pitted prunes, cut into 1/4 -inch crosswise pieces

1/2 cup dried unsweetened cherries

1-1/3 cups water

2-inch stick of cinnamon

1 tablespoon sliced almonds

Ina small saucepan, combine prunes, cherries, and water. Cover, bring toa boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer 20 minutes. Add cinnamon stickand simmer 15 minutes, stirring several times. Add almonds. Storetopping in refrigerator until ready to use. Be sure to reheat toppinggently in a small pan on a stove or in a microwave before serving.Makes 5 to 6 servings.

CHAROSETH

You can make this nutty, fruit topping up to a day ahead and store it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

1/2 cup chopped almonds

1/2 cup chopped dates

1/4 cup chopped apricots

1/3 cup raisins

1-1/2 cups finely chopped apple

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 to 3 tablespoons grape juice

2 teaspoons honey

Placealmonds in food processor with chopping blade. Process until coarselyground. Add dates, apricots, raisins, apple, and cinnamon and pulseabout 4 to 6 times, until mixed. Scrape into a bowl and mix in justenough grape juice to make a pasty consistency so the mixture stickstogether. Add honey. Refrigerate. Before serving, place in microwavelong enough to remove chill. Makes 6 (1/3-cup) servings.

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