The Zen of Каша

We call it каша (kasha) at our house and we mean oatmeal.  More precisely we might call it овсяная каша, but the kids don't know the word овес and we don't really eat any other kinds of каша anyway. Porridge might be a better translation for the word каша. The Wikipedia entry for Porridge tells us that "Porridge was a traditional food in much of Northern Europe and Russia back to antiquity." It also is how I found out about the Golden Spurtle, an event in which the art of making каша is practiced competitively. For the record, and despite the very important role каша plays in my life I do not currently have any plans to take up competitive каша preparation; a Scotsman probably wouldn't like the way I make каша anyway.

There are two very distinct styles of каша preparation that I'm aware of.  My wife, Aida, comes from the tradition of creamy каша.  I prefer my каша lumpy and this is how, almost every morning, I prepare it for my kids.  Note that the Википедия entry for каша has a lovely picture of овясная каша that is clearly made in the lumpy style.  I infer from this fact, and the fact that my wife and her family are Kazakhs, that the same dichotomy in methods of каша preparation exists in the former Soviet Union.

For a while, when I was a kid, my mom had a grain grinder and would make hot cereals from assorted freshly ground grains.  Some friends of mine who lived in the student apartment complex on the UAF campus, when I was a UAF student, acquired a grain grinder.  I used this grinder to make a number of experimental batches of what I called gruel at the time and which we all found surprisingly tasty.  Also, as a child I often ate Zoom hot breakfast cereal for breakfast.  Often my mom would put peanut butter and molasses at the bottom of the bowl. I haven't noticed Zoom in the stores any time recently.

I usually prepare каша first thing in the morning, while the kids are still sleeping, after using the restroom, drinking a liter of water and serving myself a bowl of cold cereal.  At this point I won't have woken up fully, the energy from my own breakfast won't have kicked in yet, I won't have had any coffee, I'm drowsy and easily confused.  This is probably why my каша preparation process has become so formal, even ceremonial.  Time is also a factor.  We are typically in a rush in the morning to get the kids ready for school and to get ourselves ready for work. The more I do from muscle memory and the less I use my brain, the greater the chance of a successful outcome. I do screw up the каша on a regular basis anyway, an occurrence that my kids are surprisingly tolerant of.

Scorching the каша on the bottom of the pan is probably my most frequent error.  The results of this can be either unsightly brown lumps or a reduced servicing size. Measuring too little water can translate into a reduced cooking time which can cause a dry uncooked starchy flavor. This quality is the main reason I dislike the creamy style of каша preparation.  It's easy to get this result when making creamy каша because creamy каша can be cooked very quickly. Measuring too much water can yield an extended cooking time, which in itself isn't the end of the world, but the каша can end up a little too gelatinous. Over-cooking, even in the absence of scorching and even if the ratio of water to dry oats is just right can cause каша to turn out pasty.  In this case we avoid the dry starchy flavor of каша made with too little water but can end up with a similar texture. In the entry for starch on Wikipedia, I found out that "Wheat starch paste was used by Egyptians to stiffen cloth and during weaving linen and possibly to glue papyrus." The Wikipedia article didn't say anything about industrial uses for oat starch, but the stuff can be pretty sticky. Now, I know a lot of us experimented with eating paste in preschool, but it's really not something I want to feed my kids for breakfast. Salting the water before adding the oats (I have no idea why I am sometimes compelled to do this), yields individual grains that are too tough.  This is catastrophic when making каша from whole oats, but still messes up the texture with quick or instant oats.

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I turn on the light in the hood above the stove and my process begins with the mise en place.  I retrieve a set of measuring cups from a drawer of random cooking implements knee height between the stove and refrigerator.  I take out two wide, blue bowls from the cupboard behind me and take down a 42oz cylinder of quick oats from above the refrigerator.  I scoop the 1c. measuring cup into the cylinder, level the excess back into the cylinder and poor the leveled cup of oats into the first blue bowl.  The second blue bowl receives seven shakes of a salt shaker and a heaping teaspoon of sugar.  I retrieve a sauce pan, either non-stick or stainless steel depending on what's not busy holding leftovers in the refrigerator, from the revolving shelf in the lower corner cupboard.  With the pan in one hand and taking up the measuring cups in the other, I swivel to the sink.  With my previous set of measuring cups it was possible to simultaneously hold the ¼c., ½c. and 1c. measuring cups while passing them under a stream of cold water. I would then invert all three into the sauce pan in one motion.  Sadly, the handle of the 1c. sized cup in that set snapped one fateful day while scooping oats. The replacement set, while generally of much higher quality, can't be held level at once nor can it be inverted together without spilling water.  As you can imagine, this is a real productivity loss for me. One rare error I make is to pour the water first.  I then face the brutal choice of getting out another measuring cup or having oat residue stick in the 1c. measuring cup, a situation that requires additional rinsing!  Otherwise the rinsing can effectively be done during the water measuring step and the cups can go straight onto the drying rack. With the water in the sauce pan I turn the stove on high. I usually stand in the kitchen day dreaming or eating my cereal or both.  Ideally, I will stick close by so that I can add the oats immediately when I see the water has reached a rolling boil.  If the water boils down I can end up with starchy каша, just as if I'd measured too little water in the first place. I maintain the heat on high the whole time the каша cooks. During the first phase of cooking the water is still being absorbed and boiling off and my interference isn't required.  With the heat on high we quickly reach the next phase, where most of the water in the pan has been absorbed by or is coating oat grains and the mixture is no longer soupy.  I get an audible cue that this phase has started when the каша at the bottom of the pan begins to hiss slightly.  At this point, I add the salt and sugar mixture and begin to stir constantly with a heat resistant silicone spatula which I like to call, somewhat incorrectly, a rubber policeman[1].  Using the rubber policeman I can keep the каша from burning to the bottom almost as if I were making scrambled eggs.  My goal during this phase is to boil off just enough additional water for the perfect consistency.  When I have met my goal, I push the sauce pan to the unheated back burner, cover it and note the time. I want the каша to cool for 5 minutes, both to avoid burnt tongues and to perfect the texture and flavor. Cooling like this removes any traces of starchy flavor and makes the каша more gelatinous and less mealy.  About this time I'm waking my kids up with kisses.  I  divide the mass of cooked каша into the bowls in proportions appropriate to the relative sizes and appetites of my children.  I remove peanut butter and milk from the refrigerator.  The peanut butter I prefer for каша is the kind you grind yourself in the health food section[2]. We only serve organic dairy products to our kids, 2% or whole milk, mostly out of superstition. I poor the milk over each serving of каша then use a spoon to separate the single mass of каша in each bowl into sub-spoon-sized lumps.  There should be little fjords of milk between low ridges of protruding каша. The peanut butter goes on in small lumps.  I spoon  some peanut butter out of the container then use my thumb and forefinger to tease off lumps without them sticking to either my fingers or the spoon.  This is the reason I prefer the health-food-section peanut butter -- it is much less sticky than the peanut butter from a jar. I am compulsive about putting the milk back in the fridge.  With the peanut butter lumps spread out evenly on top of the milky каша I open the freezer for a bag of frozen blueberries.  These I pour generously onto Émile's каша.  At this point I have to go get Marc's preferences for topping.  The majority of the time Marc chooses raisins but if I don't ask he'll often insist he wants blueberries and removes the raisins one-by-one and places them in a milky puddle next to his bowl before starting to eat. If he does want blueberries, he will sometimes ask that I microwave the bowl, каша, blueberries and all so that the berries will be soft. Émile by contrast sometimes complains that I put the berries on too early and that they have become too soft.  There's not much I want to do about that; Émile just copes.

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A downside of каша is the cleanup.  It's not so bad if done immediately but often, when I get home from work there are two bowls of каша on the kitchen table surrounded by small partially dried puddles of milk. The каша in these bowls is crusty and brownish on top.  The milk in one bowl stained purple from the berries.  The peanut butter lumps disintegrate into the milk further fouling the color and visual texture.  There are sometimes chunks of partially dry and gluey каша on the chairs and floor, perhaps a blueberry or several. Cleaning the pan can be particularly annoying.  The каша gums up sponges, scratchy pads and cleaning cloths, which then require vigorous rinsing. Blueberry stains can be tricky too.

The kids are generally positive about their breakfast.  Sometimes they eat more, sometimes less.  Rarely, they finish the whole bowl and are still hungry.  Occasionally one or the other does little more than nibble.  They don't complain about the monotony of eating каша every morning.  Sometimes they ask for waffles, which I have recently started making on one of the weekend days every week. They don't usually give me grief when I say I'm making каша instead.  The kids seem to see some symbolism in this ceremony which I perform just for them every morning; they refer to it sometimes when they're homesick or when they miss me.

[1] my mom used to work in the "reagant room" at the University Hospital in Seattle Washington.  She told me once when I was young that at that job they called those silicone (or I guess they were rubber at the time) bowl scrapers rubber policemen.  The term is so colorful that I can't see a bowl scraper now without thinking of the term.

[2] a note about aflatoxins: in his peanut butter cookie recipe, Michael Chu at cooking for engineers (a real asset to the Internet by the way) scared the crap out of me by saying: "The FDA found in random testing that in general [more natural] peanut butters have a higher aflatoxin content than the "ultra-processed" varieties that we generally think of."  Have I been feeding my children mega-doses of carcinogenic aflatoxins? The Wikipedia page for aflatoxins lists a whole slew of food products that might contain aflatoxins.  A Cornell University web page gives some history and includes the comment "Corn is probably the commodity of greatest worldwide concern." It also states "However, the commodities with the highest risk of aflatoxin contamination are corn, peanuts, and cottonseed."  It boils down to this for me: dangerous levels of aflatoxins occur when some kinds of food mold.  Peanuts are almost guaranteed to have some level aflatoxins, but we are probably getting hit by it once in a while in high doses from all kinds of foods.  Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever bough a cob of corn in Fairbanks that wasn't a little moldy.  Also, the association with peanuts is partially because of the discovery of aflatoxins was the result of a disaster related to peanut based animal feed.  A flatoxins have a big impact in the third world, where they are a leading cause of liver cancer.  I see a trend here: third world, animal feed.  Synthesizing all that, my instinct tells me that in the US our biggest risk of aflatoxin would come from some kind of agricultural logistical accident, in which case the specific food wouldn't be the most important factor.  At the same time I've decided that I won't be feeding my kids animal feed.  Too bad, there could be some big savings there.
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