- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2007


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.

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