- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It’s Christmas morning, and your family members have one thing on their minds — presents.

All that tearing and mayhem is bound to make people hungry, so, rather than tear yourself away from the fun to create an elaborate breakfast, rely on some easy make-ahead dishes that can be assembled the night before and popped into the oven when you turn on the coffee maker.

“You don’t want to be in the kitchen when your family is opening presents in the morning, or if you have a long day of people coming in and out of your house,” says Peter Degnan, culinary director for Williams-Sonoma. “You want something really quick and easy, but it also has to be really good and something special.”

Here are a few ideas for egg dishes, yeast breads and even hot cereals so good — and fuss-free — your family and friends will think they’ve been left by food-savvy elves.

Strata and French toast

Think of these custard-soaked bread dishes as cousins, one savory, one sweet.

For strata, start with a good baguette or Italian peasant loaf. The night before, saturate the slices with a milk-and-egg mixture, then layer them with your favorite ingredients (all meat should be fully cooked) in a buttered baking dish.

For a basic formula, try a standard baguette, a half-dozen eggs and 1 cup of milk. A total of 3 or 4 cups of ingredients can be scattered between the layers. Pour any remaining custard over the top.

Ham, bacon, sausage, cheese, spinach, broccoli and other omelet staples make perfect fillings. Try pairing cooked Italian sausage with thinly sliced apples and Grana Padano cheese for a hearty, salty-sweet sensation.

For Janis McLean, executive chef at the Morrison-Clark Hotel and Restaurant in Washington, a Christmas-morning strata is part of the family tradition, and she loads it up with intense ingredients such as wild mushrooms, sauteed chard, smoky bacon and caramelized onions.

For the family sweet tooths, nothing beats a creamy French toast. Miss McLean starts with slices of egg bread, such as challah or brioche, and uses heavy cream in the custard with a touch of orange zest, vanilla and salt.

As with the strata, for French toast, soak the slices very well, then layer them with the ingredients in a buttered shallow baking dish the night before. Slices of cream cheese, bits of cooked bacon or even good quality preserves can make tasty fillings. Pour any remaining custard over the top. Cover tightly and let it all soak in.

Both dishes should bake at 325 degrees for about an hour, or until a knife inserted at the center comes out clean.

When serving the French toast, try one of Mr. Degnan’s favorite tricks: sprinkle the top with superfine sugar and use a cook’s torch to create a crunchy creme brulee effect. Very French. Very toasty.

Quiche and breakfast pies

There are as many egg pies as there are holiday traditions. Like strata, all of them accommodate your family’s favorite flavors and fillings.

Among the easiest is quiche, a simple pie crust (use a purchased one for ease) filled with a mixture of eggs, milk and your favorite ingredients. Quiche can be cooked the night before and warmed up while the festivities get going.

If quiche seems too pedestrian, Mr. Degnan recommends sformatino, Italy’s answer to souffle. Made by combining a bechamel base with eggs and flavorings, sformatino can be assembled the night before and baked in the morning.

Mr. Degnan suggests coating buttered ramekins with finely grated cheese or fresh herbed bread crumbs. “It’s a less fussy souffle,” he says, suggesting flavorings from mild cheese to roasted peppers or nettles.

Or go with a frittata — Spain’s open-faced baked omelet — which can be made the night before and served warmed or at room temperature in the morning.

Miss McLean’s favorite make-ahead egg dish? Crispy baked eggs. Line the bottom of well-buttered ramekins with sausage grits and place in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, crack an egg into each one, add a tablespoon of cream and some shredded cheese and bake in a hot oven for 20 minutes. “It’s really easy-peasey,” she says.

Oatmeal

Thick, creamy, hot and filling, nothing says comfort like great oatmeal on a cold morning. Start with steel-cut oats for maximum flavor and texture (the rolled kind will turn to mush).

Cook them overnight on low in a slow cooker, or for even better texture, pour boiling water over the oats and let them soak overnight. A quick stir over heat in the morning will make them ready to eat.

Either way, have lots of luxurious garnishes on hand: warm, vanilla-laced heavy cream, pure maple syrup, gourmet honey, lots of fruits and nuts, and (for a unique holiday kick) really good egg nog.

Miss McLean pairs her oatmeal with a dried fruit compote full of cranberries, cherries and apricots, spiked with a little cinnamon, star anise and Armagnac to make it “just a tiny bit adult.” The compote can be made a week in advance.

If you really want to go over the top, Mr. Degnan says to get out the torch again: Top a casserole dish of cooked oatmeal with bananas and superfine sugar and torch the top for that brulee effect.

Breads and pastries

Cinnamon rolls, sticky buns and even brioche do their last rise in the refrigerator overnight and emerge from the oven on Christmas morning soft and warm.

If you prefer scones or biscuits, Miss McLean suggests making them up to a week ahead and freezing them. Roll out and cut the dough, then freeze them on a cookie sheet until they’re hard and pop them into a zip-close bag. They go straight from the freezer into the oven Christmas morning.

“It’s a restaurant trick,” Miss McLean says. “We serve scones and biscuits hot and fresh from the oven every day, but we make them 200 at a time. They work beautifully that way.”

Of course, if you have a bread machine, you can use the timer setting and awaken to a fresh, hot loaf.

Casseroles

All hail the slow cooker. The Internet is full of tasty recipes that suggest layering frozen hash browns with cheese, cooked meat such as ham, sausage or bacon, and, of course, beaten eggs. Set on low overnight, the cooker will yield a fluffy breakfast casserole ready for morning.

Or use the same approach in a buttered casserole dish.

Assemble the ingredients and refrigerate overnight. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 to 45 minutes Christmas morning.

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