Dinner vs. Child is a biweekly column about cooking for children, and with children, and despite children, originally published in Food52 and now appearing on Brow Beat.
Today: A kid breakfast that's more wholesome than pancakes, and won't send parents down a sugary spiral, either.
The weekend breakfast was long ago annexed by the American father. This alone should make us suspicious. The American father is a clever, devious creature.
His most devious move, of course, was to requisition the grill as a uniquely male site, and to endow it with an aura that made grilling seem as if it required some sort of mystical sense of the ancient ways of fire rather than the possession of opposable thumbs. And then—and this is the truly clever part—he displayed his mastery of fire only occasionally, so that when he did it was by default a special occasion and everyone felt very grateful and thanked him profusely and trotted out their high-grade adjectives.
But the American father was not satisfied. He realized that weekend breakfast offered a very similar low-risk, high-reward return: using those same opposable thumbs, he would mix together a small number of ingredients, according to an eternal, invariable recipe, and conjure up waffles or pancakes or French toast. The near-miraculous weekend-only appearance of these dishes made everyone in the household behave in a highly atypical manner. No one said, Not waffles again. No one said, That syrup looks disgusting. No one said, Only one bite. And everyone felt very grateful and thanked him profusely and trotted out their high-grade adjectives.
All of which is to say: I stand here before you, humbly, on the shoulders of giants.
But the regular weekend-only appearance of pancakes or waffles or French toast brings with it its own problems. Not for the children. For the parents.
Children can eat an endless quantity of pancakes or waffles and it only makes them stronger. I quote from the closing lines of the great Anytime Mapleson and the Hungry Bears: “And Anytime ate 1,297 pancakes. Then he drank a big glass of milk and ate 537 more. After that, he forgot to count.”
But parenthood brings with it rapid senescence and some devastating physiological changes: 1) The discovery that spinning around repeatedly no longer has the addictive, mildly hallucinogenic effect it had in childhood but instead feels pretty much like death; and 2) that you can no longer eat 1,297 pancakes before falling asleep. Or even three pancakes. This is a problem, since as the parent of small children you are always about to fall asleep anyway, so in order to avoid a pancake-induced coma you have drink even more coffee than you are already drinking, which means that when you are finally able to go to sleep, you instead stare at the ceiling and see cups of coffee swimming before your eyes. It’s a terrifying vicious circle of pancake consumption and sleep deprivation and it ends with the children in the orphanage. The memoir is forthcoming.
So you start looking for other recipes.
For all intents and purposes, Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book is the only cookbook you need to consult before 11 a.m. It is hugely charming; it is eclectic; it is comforting and weird in equal measure. There are fantastic muffin recipes and then there are things like spicy, sweet-sour orange slices (which are also fantastic). It’s highly domestic escapist literature.
But I am incorrigibly promiscuous and sometime last year I cheated on The Breakfast Book: I made the baked oatmeal from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day. I have made it a half-dozen times since. It’s fruit layered with milk-soaked oats layered with nuts. It’s wholesome but not so wholesome that it is caught trying to be wholesome. And it is narcolepsy-proof.
Not least, it is different enough, and sweet enough, to feel like a special occasion. To feel like weekend-only breakfast. And if it deviates slightly from the rules laid down by the American father for weekend-only breakfasts, it respects the basic formula: when he makes it, everyone feels very grateful and thanks him profusely and trots out their high-grade adjectives. I speak from experience.
Heidi Swanson's Baked Oatmeal
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 teaspoon baking powder
1½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fine-grain salt
2 cups milk
⅓ cup maple syrup
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 bananas, sliced into ½-inch pieces
1½ cup blueberries or a mix of berries