There are probably three foods that, with a single bite, can transport me back to my childhood à la “Ratatouille”: scrambled eggs, buttered macaroni and, perhaps my favorite, hot Cream of Wheat cereal.
The first two of those foods I instantly associate with my grandmother. I now know it was her generous use of butter that made the scrambled eggs and macaroni so memorable. After all, gobs of fresh butter will make pretty much anything taste good. Of course my memories, much like Anton Ego’s, are wrapped up not just in the food but in the experience of eating that food: sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, having her listen to my seemingly endless monologue, feeling like prettiest, most interesting girl in the world. Thankfully I had a younger brother who would keep that developing ego in check.
But Cream of Wheat, that I associate with my mother. She’d whip up a big pot on fall and winter weekends, doling out generous bowls for my brother and I, topping them with swirls of maple syrup and some milk or a pat of butter. My brother and I would fiendishly stir the toppings into our cereal while my parents read the weekend paper, and we’d dive in eagerly with our spoons. To this day, I still think of those mornings with even a single taste of that velvety, maple-scented porridge.
I’ve often thought of Cream of Wheat (also called farina) as a poor man’s breakfast polenta, since it has the same silky texture as its corn-based cousin but cooks more quickly due to its finer consistency. So when I saw a drool-worthy recipe for breakfast polenta with maple and mascarpone, but noticed that it required almost 30 minutes of cooking (way more time than I have on a weekday morning), I decided to give the recipe a whirl using Cream of Wheat instead.
And boy am I glad I did. A small dollop of mascarpone gives the cereal a touch a richness without making it too rich, and as far as I’m concerned, maple and farina are a perfect pair.
When it comes to childhood comfort foods, you can never be sure if it’s the reassuring familiarity that makes the food taste so damn good, or if it’s the food itself. In this case, I think it’s a little of both. I was bound to love this recipe, given its provenance. But my English husband’s eyes opened wide like saucers when he tried a spoonful for the first time, which makes me think that even if you never ate Cream of Wheat as a child, you’ll love this too.