Baked Vanilla-Scented Oatmeal with Dried Cranberries, Walnuts, and Ricotta Cheese

I first prepared this oatmeal on a blustery, wintry afternoon in February, as I watched the third of the major snowstorms of the season drop another foot of snow on the several feet that still remained on the frozen ground. Days like that just scream for a soothing bit of something sweet and comforting. Trying to keep warm as I tended to chores around the house, I was quite happy to have a reason to turn on the oven and even more pleased that I would enjoy a satisfying treat after assembling a fairly simple list of ingredients that most of us have on hand. I was cooking in the middle of a snowstorm, after all.

This recipe reminds me of a fresh-from-the-oven oatmeal cookie and a warming bowl of oatmeal. The topping of brown sugar and vanilla-sugared walnuts becomes caramelized and crisp as it bakes. The oatmeal itself, studded with chewy, sweet-tart cranberries, puffs and develops a pleasingly moist consistency that is neither dry like a granola bar nor creamy like a bowl of oatmeal.

Vanilla, of course, plays an important supporting role among the list of ingredients. A generous tablespoon of extract or paste adds depth and a fragrant, flavorful roundness to the fairly modest mixture of milk, egg, sugar, and oats. Vanilla and cinnamon always prove to be a happy pair, and here the vanilla seems to heighten the warmth of the spice.

You can certainly prepare this dish in an 8-by-8-inch square pan, but I really like the idea of baking it in individual ramekins. Servings for one always seem a bit fancier and more special, and such is the case even with this homey treat. Enjoy this baked oatmeal at breakfast, brunch, or, as I did, as a satisfying afternoon snack.

Serves 4

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

1 large egg

1 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract or vanilla paste

Topping

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

2 tablespoons packed light or dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Whole milk ricotta cheese for serving

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Butter four 6- to 8-ounce ramekins and arrange them on a small baking sheet.

Toss together the oats, brown sugar, cranberries, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Whisk together the butter, egg, milk, and vanilla in a small bowl and pour into the oats mixture, stirring to incorporate. Divide the oatmeal among the prepared ramekins, making sure to evenly distribute the liquid.

To make the topping, stir together the walnuts, brown sugar, vanilla extract, and salt in a small bowl and sprinkle evenly on top of the oatmeal. Bake the oatmeal for about 20 minutes, or until they have puffed, are golden brown on top, and a knife inserted in the centers comes out clean.

Serve the oatmeal hot with dollops of ricotta cheese. (You can also allow the oatmeal to cool, wrap the ramekins in plastic wrap, and store them in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. To reheat them, cover the cold ramekins with aluminum foil, set them again on a baking sheet, and bake at 350˚F for about 10 minutes. You can also warm them, uncovered, in the microwave, heating on high at about 30-second intervals.)

A Spicy Take on Hot Chocolate

I drink hot chocolate just about everyday. I know, this sounds indulgent, but honestly it isn’t. My cup for one is very straightforward: a few teaspoon of Dutch-process cocoa powder, a couple tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt, a half teaspoon or so of vanilla extract, and hot water or milk, depending on how I’m feeling. Piping some low-fat whipped cream or floating a marshmallow or two on top makes for a warming, chocolaty treat that only feels extravagant.

Despite my longstanding loyalty to this satisfying recipe, I recently came upon a version of hot chocolate that inspired me to not only think about drinking chocolate in an entirely new way, but to get to the stove and develop a recipe of my own, as well.

It was while watching a recent episode of Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth on PBS that I was first introduced to the Italian elixir known as cioccolata calda. Now, although this term simply translates as “hot chocolate” in English, in reality the beverage itself is quite different from American hot chocolate and, indeed, is as exotic and sumptuous as its name implies. In this particular episode of Ruth Reichl’s TV show, she and her traveling companion, the actress Dianne Wiest, were exploring Venice. At one point, Ms. Wiest wanders into a cioccolateria and within minutes is swooning over a small cup of this dark drinking chocolate. The image on the screen remains with me still. A large copper saucepan filled with thick chocolate simmers gently as powdered ginger, whole cardamom pods, sticks of cinnamon, and bits of vanilla beans perfume and lend complexity to the sweet pool. A flavorful example of Venetians’ penchant for spicy food and drink, cioccolata calda is also prepared in many spicy-sweet variations around Italy.

I have since learned that Italian hot chocolate is usually prepared with cocoa powder, water or milk, and various spices. What makes it truly unique, though, is the addition of flour or cornstarch to thicken the mixture. Just how thick the chocolate becomes varies from recipe to recipe. Some cioccolata caldas are so thick that they resemble hot puddings more than beverages, while others are more akin to very rich custards.

The recipe I have developed is a variation on the traditional Italian drinking chocolate. First, I perfume the milk with a delicate infusion of ground ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon and sweeten it with a bit of brown sugar. I then thicken it with just enough cornstarch to create a thin custard consistency. Next, because I wasn’t able to achieve the deep chocolaty flavor I was looking for using cocoa powder, I turned to bittersweet or semisweet chocolate. This not only easily lends chocolate intensity to the drink, but it also thickens it some more. The result is a thick custard- or crème anglaise-like hot chocolate that gives a satisfying nod to the thick-enough-to-make-a-spoon-stand-up Italian original, but, to my mind, achieves a seductive, velvety consistency that I find easier and more pleasant drink. A final splash of warm, fragrant vanilla extract rounds out and lends depth to the happy trio of milk, chocolate, and spice.

I advise serving cioccolata calda in small cups with a bit of whipped cream or a marshmallow or two. I hope this American version of an Italian classic finds a place in your repertoire—perhaps for the times when my more traditional, leaner recipe leaves you craving a bit more luxury.

Cioccolata Calda

Makes 1 1/2 cups

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Pinch of salt

2 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pour about 2 tablespoons of the milk into a small bowl and pour the rest into a small saucepan. Add the cornstarch to the small bowl of milk, stirring until it is dissolved. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and salt to the saucepan of milk and scald (heat just below the boil) over medium-high heat. Whisk in the cornstarch mixture, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer, stirring frequently, until the milk has thickened slightly, 5 minutes. Add the chocolate, stirring until it has melted completely and the hot chocolate is the consistency of thick heavy cream or crème anglaise (it will coat the back of a spoon). Stir in the vanilla and strain the hot chocolate into a heatproof pitcher.

Pour the cioccolata calda into mugs or heatproof glasses and serve immediately.