"I just wanted to celebrate porridge," says Caroline Velik, the top-ranked Australian in the annual World Porridge Championships that were announced on October 9. It's a humble sentiment befitting a dish that can be as simple as oats, water and milk but, lately, has become a blank canvas for lockdown creativity in many kitchens.
"Our household was just full of laughter over the weekend," says the food writer and recipe stylist. She and her family were up until midnight on Saturday night waiting for the championship results to be announced in Scotland.
"It's that quirky thing that I think the pandemic has given us. It's the perfect opportunity to revisit traditional and comforting foods."
Velik, who is also a regular Good Food contributor, finished in fourth place with her recipe of oats cooked in coconut milk and topped with fresh mango, dried quandong, macadamia praline and river mint, a celebration of Australian bush foods and indigenous ingredients.
"I thought I had to try and stand out, so I thought why not do Australian native ingredients? I figured they're not seeing a lot of that in Scotland."
The Scottish village of Carrbridge has hosted the competition since 1994 when a member of the local community council thought it needed an event to attract visitors in the tourism off-season. The Golden Spurtle Competition, named for the traditional wooden utensil used to stir porridge, was born.
Competitors normally travel to Carrbridge and cook both a traditional and specialty porridge dish within time limits before presenting them to judges to taste and score.
For the last two years, however, entrants have submitted a recipe and a video of them making only a specialty creation, which can range from arancini made with oats (rather than arborio rice), the winning entry this year, to croquembouche made with oat flour.
For Velik, it was important to stick a little closer to what the way porridge is typically eaten: in a bowl, with milk and some sort of toppings. But she happily admits that the basic format can be taken in many directions.
"It's endless what you can do: mixing grains, different kinds of milk, savoury or sweet, hot or cold."
She caught the porridge bug from her husband and, after buying him a beechwood oat roller from Germany as a gift six years ago, now rolls her own oat groats each day for her bowl of morning porridge. Or, she might cook it in her steam oven, a method that she used for her Golden Spurtle entry. That, along with rolling her own oats, was part of her strategy to turn judges' heads.
Velik says she'll definitely be entering the competition again next year, hopefully travelling to Carrbridge with her pots, pans and a recipe that she's already mulling over in her head.
The Golden Spurtle first appeared on her radar last year when she shared a collection of porridge photos to her Instagram account. After someone commented "Golden Spurtle?" Velik's curiosity was piqued and she began researching. But when she discovered the competition, she was too late to enter for 2020.
Needless to say, she's thrilled with placing at No. 4 this year, even beating fellow Australian and chef Scott Bridger of Perth restaurant Bib & Tucker, who came in at No. 6.
We asked Caroline for some of her hard-won porridge-making tips for those playing along at home.
Have a toppings plan - not all toppings should be sweet, nor all the textures soft. Photo: Supplied
Caroline Velik's top tips for cooking porridge
Soaking your porridge grains, overnight if you can, does wonders for the texture (and will speed up your cooking time)
For your cooking liquid, a 50-50 mix of water and your chosen milk is a good balance. You can absolutely use non-dairy milk.
Adding a small pinch of salt really elevates the flavour of the porridge and will provide a good contrast to any sweet toppings. Add it towards the end of cooking.
Have a toppings plan
Once you've got those basics down, your bowl of porridge can be whatever you want it to be. But great porridge, according to Velik, is an artful balance of texture and flavours. Not all the toppings should be sweet, not all the textures should be soft.
Some of Velik's favourite toppings are rhubarb - either stewed, steamed or macerated - a dollop of yoghurt and a bit of maple syrup. Nuts are also a good addition.