March 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Maureen Tisdale

Let's Talk Food: Slow-Cooker Steel-Cut Oats with Cashew or Almond Butter, and what are your favorite harsh-winter breakfasts or desserts?

Creamy little dollops of cashew butter make this hearty breakfast feel so indulgent. (Maureen Tisdale)

My mother-in-law is visiting thank God. Ive been dreaming of having a day in the house with my 20-month-old near but tended, allowing me to get much-neglected stuff done. (What is IN that pile of papers near my computer?)

Anyway, for months Ive been tinkering with a slow-cooker oats dish, working to find the right balance of flavors in a hearty make-ahead breakfast with no added sugar or sweeteners only to find last week, when I made a double batch to share with my mother-in-law and son (who LOVES it and fusses if I get some and he doesnt), that I had it nailed a while ago. All the tinkering of late more or less nutmeg? coconut butter for a little more silkiness? has just led me back to the version I landed on, oh, before Thanksgiving.

That was when I practiced making it in advance to see if it would hold up for the family holiday I told you about where I needed some resources to resist my brother Bills fabulous big breakfasts. I found this will hold up a solid week and that though I think its a wonderful winter breakfast (my sister Tiff, when she tried some I made at Thanksgiving, said its like hot banana bread) I actually prefer it cold. It has a batter-type creaminess, and the cashew butter and banana give it enough sweetness that I can avoid all added sugars, real or artificial.

Of course, if you dont mind add-ins like honey, you could take this a bit further and make your own nut butter (see Kates fabulous make-it-at-home story, featuring recipes for homemade versions of nut butter and other items more typically just picked up at the supermarket; also on the other end of the sweetness scale, if you missed Kates recent unusual spin on slow-cookers desserts be sure to go here to catch it).

But for me, the honey violates my no-added-sugar thing (honey and sugar are parallel on my food plan), so I just buy unsweetened cashew or almond butter. Germack has them, and many Value Centers carry that; Ive also found some brands at Whole Foods and sometimes, Westborn, though the Meijer near my house carries the Once Again Cashew Butter thats become my go-to.

Meanwhile, my slow-cooker oats were a hit with my son, my mother-in-law, my husband, even my friend Amy during her visit last month I told you about, when she asked me how to make oatmeal un-gross (ha). I love to make this harsh-winter breakfast favorite about once a week and then have grab-and-go breakfasts stacked in the fridge a busy working moms best friend. And since the dish manages to come up frequently on social media chats, its a relief to be able to have it recorded to link to rather than sheepishly offer, Ill have to put that up soon, one more time.

Now, to tackle that pile of papers ...

What are your harsh winter breakfast favorites or slow-cooker dessert ideas? Wed love to hear about them in the comments below. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but theyre easy to sign up for, and free. Over the next few days, Detroit News Food Editor Maureen Tisdale will respond to comments or questions. You also can follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!

Maureen's Slow-Cooker Oats with Cashew Butter and Banana

I found out last week you can double this recipe and not increase the cooking time, which makes it swell for crowds. With fruit, protein and grains, its a one-dish breakfast that is logical to serve warm but, I think (though I stand alone amongst friends and family whove tried it) its even better cold.

1 cups unsweetened almond coconut milk, like Almond Breeze

1 cups whole regular milk

4 ounces steel-cut oats (often marked Irish oatmeal)

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

4 large, very ripe (tiptoeing into overripe) bananas (about 2 cups, mashed)

5 ounces unsweetened, unsalted Once Again cashew butter (or the nut butter of your choice), divided

Optional: 2 tbsp coconut butter

Put in the two milks, all the flavorings and mix. Add the steel-cut oats.

Mash up two of the bananas, then add 2.5 ounces of the nut butter. Mix them until fairly homogenous, then scoop large spoonfuls of the mix and drop them dollop by dollop around the cooker. Repeat (possibly going less homogenous on the second go; see the tips).

Top by drizzling coconut butter around, if youre using. Cover, and cook on high 2 hours and 15 minutes. Turn it down to warm, stir fairly well (a few run-ins with chunks wont hurt) and serve anytime (it will stay a good consistency for a while, which makes this a great breakfast to feed a come-and-go crowd at a breakfast or brunch).

Some tips from my tinkering

■I wouldnt go heavier on the nutmeg; it overpowers the dish quickly. Also, my husband and I run low blood pressure and like salt a lot, but it wouldnt hurt to take it down a notch if you need or prefer; I might try this myself (see I SAY Im done tinkering...)

■The hazelnut cashew butter was my biggest bomb; there was a weird bitter flavor it brought to the table. Macadamia nut butter which I had such high hopes for has such a mild flavor I didnt even try it, while regular cashew or almond butter work great.

■If you mix the banana and nut butter together, its much easier to dollop into the pan (but its a little more fun eating to leave some banana chunky and drop in some morsels of cashew butter on their own, allowing you to run into silky or creamy bites that mix up the texture a bit).

■If you use a slow-cooker bag (which Im hooked on), take the time to scrape down the sides; some of the best concentrated flavors come off there. Thats when my son gets very insistent about helping. Also, spraying the liner with cooking spray helps a lot.

■I recommend, if your slow-cooker is a little old or inexpensive (like mine), folding over some foil and lining the back-half (opposite the controls) of the cooker with that before adding the bag; that will help prevent burn-on in the back, which tends to be hotter than the front.

■I found the coconut butter heightened both the coconut flavor in the milk and the silky decadence of the dish, but I found it such a pain to work with (I have to loosen it by soaking the jar in hot water, then work it hard to mix it together) and the dish good enough without it that once this jar is used up, I think Ill skip the calories in future batches.

■I wouldnt recommend freezing this dish; when I did recently, for a week just to test (I had dreams of making bigger batchs and doing it once a month, like Im working to do with my husbands breakfast bars), the flavor held steady, but the texture lost its luster. Blech.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving (with cashew butter and the optional coconut butter): 520 calories; 24 g fat (10 g saturated fat; 42 percent calories from fat); 69 g carbohydrates; 12 mg cholesterol; 848 mg sodium; 16 g protein; 9 g fiber.

Though I love this slow-cooker porridge with cashew butter, it's great ... (Maureen Tisdale)