A good bowl of mush is not an afterthought, but a delicate balancing of taste and texture — the predominant texture is, of course, smooth. A great bowl of mush delivers all the olfactory pleasures of a more texturally stimulating meal, without jarring you into the sort of sharp alertness that can feel intrusive and unpleasant before 11 a.m. This is gentle food, exactly what’s needed midweek, during a pandemic, when you have to tackle responsibilities and pretend the world is not a terrifying ball of rocks spinning way too fast.
For a few weeks, the base of my breakfast mush — I like to call this mixture, which resembles something like wet concrete, “parfait” — was Greek yogurt, followed by a crown of banana slices, a quarter-inch layer of apple sauce, and a dribble of creamy almond butter. For a brief spell, oatmeal took the place of yogurt. Eventually, yogurt was reintegrated, and the two now coexist in mushy balance.
At some point, I started adding chia seeds to the oatmeal, which I soak overnight before cooking, so the entire texture leans heavily in the direction of pudding. This dish — if you could call it that — has evolved depending on what I have in the fridge, but the texture always remains recognizably smooth. I know you’re probably sick and tired of being told that this routine or that food is just what’s missing from your life. But if you don’t already start the day with some form of porridge or similarly soothing food — congee, genfo, so many soft, excellent options! — maybe this really is what’s missing.
In 2022, at the big brunch bash you’ve cooked for all your friends, you probably won’t want to serve bowls of grayish oatmeal speckled with chia seeds and chunky peanut butter. Even slices of banana or half-moons of fresh apple will not turn this into a beautiful dish. For now though, with no prying eyes to interrogate your aesthetic choices, and not a single brunch plan, there has never been a better time to eat like a teething baby. You couldn’t sell this dish on looks alone, but what it lacks in appearance, it makes up for in wonderfully contrasting temperatures and ever so slightly different textures. A blanket of banana slices or pecans or nut butter between warm oatmeal and creamy-cold yogurt will protect the distinctly different soft foods from bleeding into one another as you sink your spoon through the many beautiful layers.
Unlike sourdough or banana bread or really any pandemic-times food that requires precisely measuring ingredients, there’s no exact science to making oatmeal or chia pudding or a good bowl of yogurt — I know there are some porridge experts out there who would disagree. As close to a recipe as I have is this: Once a week, I fill a 32-ounce ball jar halfway to the top with rolled oats, followed by four or five tablespoons of whole chia seeds. Next, in goes about a cup of nut milk, a glug of maple syrup, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and enough water to reach the rim of the jar. After soaking overnight, the oats are broken down and creamy, and the chia has given the mixture its pudding-like bounce. Some people like their overnight oats raw, and would spoon this gloppy mixture straight into their bowl. I prefer them cooked, and love the way the oats, heated over a low flame, break down and turn creamy.
This oatmeal pudding is the blank canvas for all of my easiest, most comforting breakfasts. I walk into the kitchen still bleary eyed, and trip over my computer charger, which has no right to be exactly where I left it the night before. I dump a portion of the soaked mixture into a small pot with a satisfying plop. With the lights in my kitchen still off so I don’t have to face the day quite yet, I listen to the morning’s news or scroll TikTok or just stare at nothing and think about what it says that my succulents are all dying of dehydration. Usually, by the time the soupy oats have reached a smooth, thick consistency, I’ve decided what else will be added to the day’s layers of mush. Sometimes I slice a banana straight onto the steaming oatmeal, so the residual heat cooks it just a bit. Other days I put a dollop of yogurt on next, which melts into the oatmeal. (I am nothing if not spontaneous!) Next, a little handful of chia, of peanuts, of whatever nuts and seeds I’ve squirreled away in the back of my pantry. This is not complicated stuff, and while never particularly pretty, every bowl of slop parfait hits the spot.
Eating this soft food for breakfast leaves some excitement for later in the day. Pushing other breakfast foods (or at least those that aren’t smooth) to lunchtime means one less meal to think about and plan for in the never-ending cooking loop that dominates so much of my life. A noon omelet! A plate of sausage and bacon! Some hash! That’s a perfect 12 o’clock meal, and leaves only dinner to be sorted out. First thing in the morning though, before rubbing the sleep from your eyes or washing any dishes from the night before, pull out the oats, yogurt, applesauce, and nut butters. This moment calls for near-effortless, delicious mush.