- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The best brunch is one that someone else has made or that is ordered in a restaurant. First thing in the morning on a day when we’re not dashing off to work, shuffling pots and pans is about as appealing as dieting during the holidays.

But there are ways to make life easier, if not less caloric. Where brunch entertaining is concerned (or even brunch for your family, if you are generous), there are make-ahead tricks to help create good and impressive meals that deliver a few more minutes of snooze time when we really want it.

Set out a platter of fresh sliced fruit to complement a baked dish that is showy so that guests won’t notice that little other effort has been made. Baking is good because it fills the house with pleasing aromas and gives you time to make the coffee and set the table.

Delegate the fruit platter to someone else, if you can capture such an assistant, and a breathtaking brunch is ready in about the same time it would take to scramble an egg. But the eggs have long since been scrambled and the skillet washed.

The problem is, many outstanding baked goods don’t take well to advance preparation unless they are totally cooked and frozen, thus defeating the aroma goal and making us seem less, well, considerate. And when does frozen and defrosted taste as good as fresh? Because of the rising process, yeast dough takes too long in the a.m., and it’s too complicated for still-relaxed brains. But P.J. Hamel, baking expert and senior editor at the King Arthur Flour Co. in Norwich, Vt., has a solution.

“The best way to do cinnamon rolls,” she says, “is to make the dough, let it rise in the bowl, then shape the rolls and let them rise a little for about 30 minutes.” Then place them on a baking pan and freeze until hard, she says. Take them from the freezer and toss into an airtight heavy-duty resealable plastic bag. Use a straw to suck out any additional air to create your own vacuum pack.

“When ready to bake,” Miss Hamel says, “take them out of the freezer and let them sit on a baking pan so they can thaw and rise. And then bake them as usual.” The aroma will fill the kitchen, and everyone including you will be energized by the event.

Quick breads present another problem. However, this, too, can be worked around, says Miss Hamel, who edited the wonderful “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion” cookbook, released earlier this fall by the Countryman Press. (If you’re looking for cookie recipes, this is the place to go.) Here’s the problem: “If it’s a baking-soda recipe, it won’t work. Once baking soda gets into liquid, it loses all its pop overnight. Baking powder loses about half overnight once the liquid is added.” This can be avoided if the liquid and the baking soda or powder leavening are kept separated until the last minute.

The baked sour cream coffeecake that follows is an example. Warm from the oven, it is tender, flavorful and impressive. Alas, as it cools, the impressiveness level drops faster than a day-old biscuit. And the batter deflates if made in advance.

The solution is to stir up the batter minus the leavening the day before, refrigerate it and add the leavening agents just before pouring it into the pan and baking. The result is worth the effort. Trust me.

One piece of good news is that scone and biscuit doughs can be made the night before because they contain so little liquid. So mix them up, place the scones or biscuits on a baking sheet and cover tightly with plastic wrap, because “oxygen is what starts to degrade ingredients,” Miss Hamel says.

Refrigerate overnight. Then slide the baking sheet, minus the plastic wrap, into the oven in the morning, before guests or family start to complain of hunger. The biscuits will arrive at the table warm and welcoming. The scones will be that way, too. Serve them with jam or orange honey butter, made by combining 1 cup softened butter with 4 teaspoons honey and the grated zest of an orange.

Want to serve eggs the next morning but don’t feel like scrambling to an audience? Eggs can easily be made in advance, although reheating them can cause discoloration, according to Elisa Maloberti at the American Egg Board. To avoid this, simply add a little citric acid such as lemon or lime juice to the eggs. (It doesn’t take much: just 1/4 teaspoon for every 18 large eggs, Miss Maloberti says.)

Eggs can be scrambled with Monterey Jack cheese (1/3 cup per 3 eggs), then rolled up in a 10-inch flour tortilla along with 3 tablespoons nonfat green-chili-and-lime refried beans. Seal one or more in plastic bags for up to 24 hours.

In the morning, layer the tortilla rolls into a well-greased oven-proof serving dish, top with green salsa and a sprinkling of grated cheddar, and bake to heat through for about 20 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven. (The amount of time required will depend on the number of tortilla rolls in the pan.) Serve with sour cream, guacamole and red salsa on the side. Your guests will love it.

Ginger scones

Make-ahead trick: Make dough and place scones on baking sheet. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and place whole tray in refrigerator the night before. The next morning, remove tray from refrigerator 15 minutes before baking and turn on oven to preheat. Bake scones as indicated in this recipe.

1 large whole egg

6 tablespoons whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups bleached flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut in chunks

½ cup crystallized ginger chunks, chopped (see note)

In a small bowl, whisk together egg, cream and vanilla to combine. Set aside.

In food processor or mixing bowl with a hand pastry blender, combine flour, sugar and baking powder.

Add butter and cut into flour until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. (Do not overmix.) Stir in chopped ginger to blend throughout, and then pour in egg mixture and quickly mix to lightly blend.

Pat scones, using 1/4 cup per scone (about 1 inch thick, 2½ inches in diameter), onto ungreased cookie sheet. Place on top-middle rack of preheated 400-degree oven, and bake 12 to 15 minutes or until tops are golden and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

Cool on wire rack for 5 minutes before serving, either warm or at room temperature. Makes about 9 scones.

Note: Measure ginger chunks before chopping. Then chop by hand into 1/8- to 1/4-inch pieces. (A food processor will mash it.) Milk-chocolate chips can be substituted for candied ginger in this recipe, and the result, as you might imagine, is delicious.

Sour cream coffeecake

Make-ahead trick: The batter for this cannot be totally assembled in advance, or the cake will not rise. But if you add the baking soda and powder just before baking, the cake will rise nicely and be warm just when you want it to be.

½ cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing pan

½ cup all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring pan

1½ cups cake flour

1 cup sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

Topping (recipe follows)

Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan (not a Bundt pan). Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

In a bowl, mix together all-purpose and cake flours.

In a large mixing bowl with a tight-fitting lid, beat ½ cup butter with sugar until fluffy and light. Add egg and vanilla; mix well. Add flours and sour cream, mixing just until blended. Place plastic wrap over surface of batter to seal out as much air as possible. Cover pan with tight-fitting lid and refrigerate overnight.

Assemble ingredients for topping in bowl with tight-fitting lid and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove topping from refrigerator. Remove batter from refrigerator, and quickly mix in (about 1 minute with electric mixer until again fluffy) baking soda and baking powder.

Spread half the batter carefully in prepared tube pan. Sprinkle half of topping evenly over. Spread with remaining batter and sprinkle with remaining Topping. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes, then remove cake from pan and serve warm. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

TOPPING:

1/4 cup flour

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1/4 cup (½ stick) chilled butter, in chunks

1 cup chopped walnuts

In food processor or by hand, combine flour, sugar and butter, and mix until crumbly (about 10 to 20 seconds in food processor). Be careful not to overmix. Stir in walnuts.

Four-cheese strata

Make-ahead trick: No trick here. It’s a natural make-ahead. This recipe is based on one created by the American Egg Board.

Nonstick cooking spray

1 medium onion, sliced (about 2 cups)

3 tablespoons olive oil

6 ounces mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon marjoram

1 teaspoon minced garlic

6 slices bread (use white, sourdough, rye or whole wheat, including crust)

½ cup shredded cheddar cheese

½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

6 eggs, lightly beaten

1½ cups milk

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

About 4 slices Swiss cheese (enough to cover)

Mist an 8-inch-square baking pan with cooking spray. Set aside.

In frying pan over medium heat, saute onion in olive oil until softened and starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and marjoram, and saute until mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes more.

Add garlic and saute until fragrance is released, about 1 minute. Cut bread in 1-inch cubes to equal about 4 cups. Arrange half of the cubes over bottom of baking pan. Top with onion-mushroom mixture. Combine cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, and sprinkle over mushroom mixture. Top with remaining bread cubes.

Blend together eggs, milk, mustard, salt and pepper, and pour over bread mixtures. Top with Swiss cheese slices. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Uncover and bake in preheated 350-degree oven until golden and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 60 minutes. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Baked French toast with Nutella

Make-ahead trick: Fill the French toast and make up the custard in advance. In the morning, about 40 minutes before eating, dip toast in custard and bake it while the coffee brews and you set the table. This recipe is based on one by Susan Reid of King Arthur Flour and the Baking Sheet, the company’s all-recipe newsletter. She makes it by using 3 tablespoons jam instead of Nutella in this recipe.

TOAST:

4 ounces cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese, room temperature

6 tablespoons Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread, room temperature

8 slices white bread

CUSTARD FOR DIPPING:

4 large eggs

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Nonstick cooking spray

Confectioners’ sugar

Maple syrup, optional

Mix cream cheese and Nutella until combined. Spoon mixture on four of the bread slices; spread all the way to outside edges, then top with remaining slices to make sandwiches. Place in resealable plastic bag, and refrigerate until ready to bake.

In a flat container with an airtight lid large enough to hold a bread slice, beat together eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Mist a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with sides with nonstick cooking spray. Dip sandwiches into custard, turning once, for 2 minutes on the first side and 1 on the second to soak up as much of the custard as possible.

Lay drained slices on pan and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, then turn them over and bake for 20 minutes more, or until toast is golden brown on both sides. Sprinkle lightly with sifted confectioners’ sugar, and serve with syrup, if desired. Makes 4 to 8 servings if squares are cut into triangles, but recipe can easily be doubled.

Cinnamon buns

Make-ahead trick: Make the dough and let it rise in the bowl, then shape the rolls and let them rise for 30 minutes. (They won’t rise much.) Place them on a baking pan and freeze until hard. Take them from the freezer and toss into a resealable plastic bag. Use a straw to suck out any additional air to create a vacuum pack.

When ready to bake, remove from freezer and let them sit on a baking pan until thawed and risen. Place in preheated oven and, while they are baking as directed in the recipe, make the glaze. This recipe is for the quintessential cinnamon bun drizzled with thick white icing. It’s from the King Arthur Flour Co.

DOUGH:

3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons instant yeast

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon granular lecithin, optional

2 tablespoons Baker’s Special dry milk or nonfat dry milk

11/4 teaspoons salt

1 large egg plus enough water to make 1 cup

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons butter, softened

Vegetable oil for greasing work surface and baking pan

FILLING:

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 cup soft butter

½ cup cinnamon chips or Cinnamon Flav-R-Bites, optional, or nuts, raisins or chocolate chips

ICING:

3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream or 2 tablespoons water

1 cup glazing sugar or confectioners’ sugar

To make dough, mix and knead together by hand, mixer or bread machine flour, instant yeast, sugar, granular lecithin (if using), Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk, salt, egg and water, vanilla and butter to form a soft, smooth dough. Place it in a greased bowl, then cover and allow it to rise in a warm place for 1 to 1½ hours; it should almost double in size.

To make filling, mix together sugar, cinnamon and flour. Set aside.

To assemble, turn dough out onto a lightly greased work surface and roll it into a rectangle measuring about 8 by 24 inches.

Spread a thin layer of soft butter over the dough, leaving about 1 inch uncovered on the short side nearest you. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar mixture and any chips, nuts or raisins of your choice. Starting with the short edge covered with filling, roll dough into a log.

Use a serrated knife to gently saw the log into six equal pieces. Place each bun into a lightly greased cup of an oversize muffin pan or onto a baking sheet (leaving about 2 inches between them), pressing down slightly. If not freezing at this point, cover buns and let them rise in a warm place for 45 minutes to 11/4 hours, until they’re quite puffy.

Bake buns in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out of the pan and allow them to cool to slightly warm before frosting.

To make icing, mix cream and glazing or confectioners’ sugar to make a creamy glaze; use water for a thinner glaze. Drizzle icing over buns.

Makes 6 buns.

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