Some folks' idea of comfort food is meat loaf or macaroni and cheese. Mine is oatmeal. It's creamy and warm, but, more than that, it's a food my dad made for me and my siblings when we were little.
My father is a good and careful cook. He would never dip his finger into a bowl of frosting for a sample. Unfortunately, I did not inherit his self-control. I also didn't get his concentration genes. I get my daily pot of oatmeal simmering on the stove and tend to other tasks — like making coffee or unloading the dishwasher — often to find the unwatched pot of oatmeal bubbling over. My dad doesn't make that mistake. He gives his full attention to his tasks.
Just last Christmas, I got another lesson in kitchen mindfulness. When my husband and I visited my parents last Christmas, I turned a pot of Quaker "Quick Cooking" Oatmeal into a bland-tasting paste. I had cooked it too long. Frustrated, I turned to my dad. He started another batch. Standing at the stove, he slowly stirred the oatmeal, almost in a meditative state. He watched it, and pulled it off the heat just as the oatmeal thickened. The results were edible, and yummy.
That stirring is the key to his Cream of Wheat. It is always smooth and perfect. Steady heat, a slow pour of the Cream of Wheat into boiling water and frequent stirring keep it from getting lumpy. When I was a kid, dad would add a dollop of aesthetically pleasing dark purple grape jelly to the pale, white cereal. I'd stir in the jelly, and turn the Cream of Wheat dark pink.
While oatmeal plays a starring role in my current — and childhood — cold-weather kitchen, it also is Best Supporting Actor in the Eddings Family's dessert repertoire. I regularly make my mom's oatmeal cookies, an icebox variety that bakes up crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle. And then there is oatmeal cake — my dad's favorite. Mom said she got the recipe from my aunt Jan, who clipped it from a suburban Pittsburgh newspaper "ages ago."
This oatmeal cake is addictive, one that compels me, as I pass by it in the kitchen, to shave off a little piece — and then another little piece, and then another until I've eaten a third of the damn thing.
One year, during a family reunion, my siblings and I picked the cake to death while sitting around a picnic table, talking. We were oblivious to the fact that mom had meant to serve it in honor of my dad's birthday, which was several days away. Oops!
Here's a picture of my dad, holding what was left of the cake. The obligatory candle barely finds a toehold on the top.
I love that memory. We were so careless and casual and gluttonous, sitting outside on a warm spring day, catching up with one another's lives. We didn't realize what we were doing, and when we did we laughed. If it had been a fancy, yellow layer cake with pearly-white seven-minute frosting, we wouldn't have touched it. But it was an oatmeal cake. Oatmeal! Familiar. Familial. Comforting.
Amy's Dad's Favorite Oatmeal Cake
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup butter (one stick), softened to room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teas. baking soda
1 teas. cinnamon
1 teas. nutmeg (preferably freshly ground/grated)
1/2 teas. salt
FOR COCONUT TOPPING:
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup walnuts, chopped fine
1/4 teas. pure vanilla extract
6 Tbls. unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup whole milk
YOU'LL NEED: a 9 1/2 x 11 inch sheet cake pan. Spray the pan with baking oil spray or grease with shortening. Line the pans with parchment paper, grease the parchment paper and dust with flour.
OVEN: 350 degrees
TO MAKE CAKE:
Pour the boiling water over the rolled oats and set aside for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside. In another bowl, with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each egg. Add the soaked oatmeal and combine. Add the bowl of dry ingredients and mix until just blended. It will be soupy. Pour into the prepared cake pan and bake in 350 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely before putting on the topping.
TO MAKE THE COCONUT TOPPING:
With a mixer, on slow speed, blend all the ingredients together in a small bowl. When the cake is cool to the touch, spread the topping on the cake (I use a fork, it's easier to spread) and broil for about 5 to 8 minutes. The coconut/walnut mixture will bubble and brown. Do not leave the cake unattended, because the topping can burn quickly. Rotate the pan, so that the topping browns evenly.
Allow the cake and topping to cool.
This cake mellows with age, and tastes better the next day. It's great with vanilla ice cream.