(NYTIMES) - No matter how much cream and honey you pour into your bowl, no matter the raisins or raspberries that dot the top, there will always be something gray and Dickensian about a bowl of morning porridge.
Unless, that is, you add chocolate. Because chocolate oatmeal splits the difference between porridge and pudding: It's soft, it's custardy and it's profoundly bittersweet.
Even better, since unsweetened cocoa powder is naturally fat-free and full of antioxidants, this is one chocolate breakfast cereal that can be considered healthful - at least until you start adding on the sugar and cream.
Chocolate oatmeal is not something I grew up with - I only recently stumbled across a mention of it online. That recipe, made with dates and freshly toasted, ground hazelnuts, was fancier and more involved than I wanted for a weekday morning.
A much simpler method is to whisk some unsweetened cocoa into your boiling water before adding the oats, then to sweeten the mixture to taste at the end. I like the ratio of one tablespoon cocoa powder to half a cup steel-cut oats, but you can vary that, making it more or less intensely chocolaty. Dutch-processed cocoa, which has been alkalised to reduce its acidity, will give you a darker chocolate flavour, while natural cocoa powder is a bit brighter and more fruity, so use whatever you have.
On most mornings, I'll stop there. But sometimes, on the dreariest days, when I know I need something extra special to lure me out of bed, I'll toast the oats in browned butter before adding them to the pot. That touch of caramelisation adds a wonderful, nutty depth.
Without any added sweetener, chocolate oatmeal is almost shockingly bitter. But a drizzle of honey or maple syrup or a sprinkling of sugar tames it without turning it into dessert. Likewise, substituting milk - be it whole milk, coconut milk or nut milk - for up to half of the cooking water softens the bite.
My favourite toppings for a bowl of chocolate oatmeal are a lump of sweet butter, a shower of Demerara sugar and a few tiny flakes of sea salt. The contrasts - bitter and buttery, sweet and salty - make it much more complex and sophisticated than the average bowl of porridge, even if it sounds like the kind of thing you'd serve to children. But don't be fooled. Children will love it, but this recipe for chocolate oatmeal is as adult as porridge gets.
Brown-Butter Chocolate Oatmeal
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups steel-cut oats
3 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-process
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
Raw sugar, honey or maple syrup, to taste
Toppings: Cream, milk or coconut milk, butter, flaky sea salt, sliced bananas, shredded coconut, sliced dates, sliced avocado
1. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Let cook, swirling occasionally, until it turns deep golden brown and smells nutty, 2 to 4 minutes. You'll know it's close when the bubbling quiets down as the moisture cooks off. Add oats and sauté until they turn golden at the edges, 2 to 4 minutes. Scrape oats and butter into a bowl and reserve.
2. To the same pot (no need to rinse it out first) add 4 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Add cocoa powder and whisk well to dissolve lumps. Whisk in buttered oats and salt.
3. Lower to a gentle simmer. Let cook, stirring occasionally, until done to taste, 25 to 30 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit for 5 minutes. Check the thickness; thin with boiling water if needed. Stir in sweetener to taste and serve with toppings of your choice.