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.)

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