We had no restaurant reservation on Valentine’s Day, 2007. Instead, Dear Husband Bob and I tag-teamed three children under the age of 5, each with a tummy bug that robbed us of our sleep and sanity, but regrettably, not our sense of smell. A wise man would have grabbed the dog and run screaming from the house. Instead, when Bob found me curled up on the laundry room floor, he covered me with a sleeping bag, added a cup of bleach to the whites and folded clean towels in preparation for the next day’s ick. It was romance at its most real, far sweeter than any box of chocolates. And it’s precisely why I protect his loving heart. I mean literally protect it, with oatmeal.
Grandmothers and physicians have long lauded the benefits of whole-grain oatmeal. It’s packed with water-soluble fiber, which reduces the low-density lipoprotein (aka LDL or “bad”) cholesterol in your bloodstream, and improves your vocabulary with words like lipoprotein. But daily dollops of plain oatmeal feel less like romantic love and more like obligatory in-law love. Which is why you need to put down the ladle and pick up a loaf pan to make the tastiest, most versatile version of oatmeal’s best self.
Baked oatmeal is simple, and simply brilliant. Instead of standing over a hot, splattering pot, you pour milk over rolled (never instant) oats and let them bake away while you engage in other activities, like texting kissy faces. Make it plain or add healthy ingredients that you have around the kitchen. A few nuts boost the protein and fiber content; toast them in a dry skillet for maximum flavor. Throw in some dried apricots or apple slices for a chewy treat. Fresh fruit that’s this close to being over-ripe bakes up as sweetly as a valentine, without being overtly sugary.
Actually, let’s talk about sweetness. In spite of its soft, cakey texture, the baked oatmeal recipe that follows is not dessert-sweet. It’s subtly sweet. Like when Bob changes the thermostat to accommodate my hormone surges without comment. If you absolutely need sweet-sweet, double the brown sugar or add a splash of pure maple syrup to the finished dish.
Any milk will work in this recipe, including non-dairy coconut or almond milk. Since I’m in heart-healthy mode, I suggest skim milk, which offers the same amount of calcium and protein as whole milk, with less saturated fat. You’ll also notice there’s no oil in this recipe. That’s because I use applesauce to make my baked oatmeal tender, with zero added fat. A single egg lightens the texture, but if you are egg-avoidant, substitute a mashed ripe banana or a tablespoon of freshly ground flaxseed mixed with 3 tablespoons of water.
I bake my oatmeal in a rectangle loaf pan, which produces a wonderfully spongy cake with a crispy top. Want more crunch? Bake the oatmeal in an 8-by-8-inch square pan and reduce the cooking time by five minutes. Serve your baked oatmeal with additional fresh fruit, milk, brown sugar, or my favorite, a dollop of fat-free plain Greek yogurt. The opportunities to create new flavor combinations are infinite. You know, just like love and laundry.