Made into dumplings and dropped in a stew or toasted on a cheesecake, oats are in their element at this time of year.
It's porridge weather and I have my breakfast down to a fine art. A cup of pinhead oats added in a steady flow to the three of boiling water, a generous hand with the salt and a firm but tender clockwise stir for a full three minutes. It fills and bolsters, calms and nannies. It's a hot water bottle for the tummy. Best of all, porridge weather brings oats in all their forms into the kitchen. Jumbo oats for flapjacks and warm toasted granola, medium oats for adding to crispbread and coarse oatmeal for cheese biscuits and the dream of making my own haggis (never have, never will, despite my love for it).
This week I have mastered little oat dumplings to bob up and down on a dark and interesting stew. Light enough, they are just what is needed to make a beef, lamb or venison stew go further. My fear was that substituting oatmeal for some of the flour would give a bullet of a dumpling, but not so. The trick is to get them into the stew as quickly as possible after making and to keep them small, no larger than a golf ball.
As much as I relish the silken quality of a bowl of warm, sloppy oats, their true flavour only comes out when they are toasted, as in the crisp top crust I made for a soft lemon cheesecake this week. It is what I will celebrate Burns Night with on 25 January, following the sheep's pluck and whisky.
Sweet oat cheesecake
A creamy, lemon-edged cheesecake with a crisp crust to contrast the soft texture. Serves 6-8.
For the base:
sweet oat biscuits 200g
For the cake:
full-fat cream cheese 600g
golden caster sugar 200g
egg yolk 1 extra
soured cream 400g
For the oat crust:
jumbo rolled oats 50g
Demerara sugar 3 tbsp
To make the base, crush the biscuits and oatcakes to fine crumbs in a food processor or in a sealed plastic bag with a rolling pin. Melt the butter in a small pan, add the crumbs and mix thoroughly. Use a little more than half of the mixture to line the base of a deep 22cm cake tin with a removable base, then pat gently down to form a crust, but without compacting the mixture too much. Put the cake tin the fridge for 30 minutes. Set aside the remaining crumbs for later.
Set the oven at 140C/gas mark 1. Mix the cream cheese and sugar in a food mixer for a couple of minutes until smooth. Stir in the eggs, lightly beaten, and the extra yolk, a little at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time. Finely grate the zest from the lemon and beat it into the mixture along with its juice and a few drops of vanilla extract. Stop the machine and stir in the soured cream, slowly and thoroughly.
Take the cake tin from the fridge, wrap its base and sides thoroughly with tin foil, making sure there are no splits or tears and place it in a deep roasting tin. Pour the cream cheese mixture into the cake tin, then pour hot water into the roasting tin to come half way up the sides of the cake tin and bake for an hour. It should still be wobbly. Turn off the heat and leave the cake in the switched-off oven for a further hour. Remove the cake from the oven and refrigerate for four hours, or preferably overnight, still in its tin, before adding the oat crust.
To finish, melt the butter in a shallow pan, add the sugar and then the oats and the reserved biscuit crumbs. Stir occasionally, over a moderate heat until the sugar and butter have formed a caramel and the oats are golden brown. Tip on to a lightly oiled piece of baking parchment and leave to set.
Crack the oat caramel into pieces and scatter over the cheesecake before carefully removing it from the tin.
Port-braised venison with oat dumplings
You can use beef or lamb in place of the venison should you wish. Serves 6.
oil a little
venison 500g, cubed
smoked bacon 150g
thyme 4-6 sprigs
bay leaves 3
fine oatmeal 3 tbsp
For the oat dumplings:
fine oatmeal 70g
plain flour 70g
baking powder 1 heaped tsp
salt 1 tsp
water 5 tbsp
Warm a thin film of oil in a wide, deep pan, add the cubed venison, let it brown evenly on all sides, then remove to a plate. While the meat is browning, peel and roughly chop the shallots, parsnips and turnips, then scrub and roughly chop the carrots and add all to the pan. Let the vegetables colour lightly, giving them the occasional stir, then return the venison and its juices and add the whole thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6.
Stir in the oatmeal and cook for a few minutes. Pour in the port and water, bring to the boil then lower the heat, stir in salt and black pepper, cover with a lid and transfer to the oven for an hour and a half.
Make the oat dumplings by putting the flour, oatmeal and baking powder in a large mixing bowl with the salt and stirring well to distribute the raising agent. Dice and add the butter, rubbing the mixture with your fingertips until it resembles coarse bread crumbs. Do this in a food processor if you wish. Spoon in the water and mix to a firm, but not sticky dough.
Tear off lumps of the dough and roll each into a small ball, using a little flour if necessary. Remove the lid from the venison, lower the dumplings, not touching, into the liquid, cover, then continue baking for 15-20 minutes until they rise. Serve in shallow bowls.
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Float your oats: Nigel Slater's cheesecake with a sweet oat topping. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer