- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

There are people who really do enjoy getting up early and jumping into the kitchen for the sake of fresh muffins or other such breakfast delights. I’ve heard of them; they exist.

I am not one of those people. Just after waking up, I sometimes have trouble convincing my brain that a mug is required for coffee, much less finding the wherewithal to measure flour or ribbon eggs with sugar.

Yet, I still enjoy a nice breakfast spread as much as the next person, and this is why I’ve started doing as much as possible the night before. A great many recipes actually benefit from an overnight resting period, and this is something that can work to our advantage.

Bread dishes do very well overnight. In the recipe for Monte Cristo casserole, the eight or more hours of resting give the bread time to soak up the eggs and milk. The mini-sandwiches are completely saturated the next morning, and the casserole bakes into a delicious bread pudding with just the right balance of tenderness and bite.

Creamy steel-cut oats are another breakfast favorite, but they can take up to an hour to cook. Covering the oats in boiling water and letting them soak overnight cuts the cooking time the next morning in half. Be sure to get specifically “steel-cut” oats for this recipe or you’ll end up with gluey mush. You might also find them called “groats.”

These oats have a pleasant nutty flavor when cooked that’s very different from that of your average rolled or quick-cooking oats. This oatmeal is great on its own, but it’s even better spiced up with fresh or dried fruit, toasted nuts, cinnamon and a scoop of brown sugar.

These recipes shouldn’t be confused with quick recipes. They still take some time and planning, but they’re designed so that most of the steps that require thinking and concentration are done the night before. All that’s left to do in the morning are the gentle tasks like removing a pan from the fridge so the rolls can rise and setting a timer.

Make-ahead Monte Cristo casserole

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 baguette (a day-old loaf is best)

1/2 pound thinly sliced deli ham

1/2 pound sliced Swiss cheese (at least 10 slices)

1/2 pound thinly sliced deli turkey

6 large eggs

4 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

Raspberry jam, for serving

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Using a serrated bread knife, cut the baguette into slices 1/2 to 3/4 inches thick. Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven. Flip the slices after 10 minutes and continue toasting until they are completely dry and lightly golden around the edges, 20 to 25 minutes.

Spray a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick coating. Starting with the biggest slices, arrange the toast pieces evenly on the bottom of the pan. On each piece of toast, arrange a slice of ham, a slice of Swiss cheese, and a slice of turkey. Top each sandwich with another piece of toast. Leftover toast can be frozen for up to two months.

In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, milk, vanilla and salt. Whisk thoroughly until the mixture is a uniform consistency and slightly frothy. Pour the egg mixture over the top of the sandwiches, making sure each sandwich is soaked with a little liquid. The liquid should fill the pan and touch the top slice of bread. If it doesn’t, add a little milk until it does. Cover the pan and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.

When ready to bake, place an oven rack in the lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the casserole until the egg mixture has puffed around the sandwiches and the top is slightly golden, about 60 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

Allow the casserole to cool for 10 minutes. Just before serving, sift confectioners’ sugar over the top of the casserole. Serve with a dollop of raspberry jam.

Overnight steel-cut oatmeal with apricots, dates and toasted pecans

Makes 2 to 4 servings

3 cups water

1 cup steel-cut oats

1 whole cinnamon stick (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)

1 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1/2 cup chopped dates

1/2 cup chopped apricots

1/2 cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped

3 tablespoons brown sugar

Extra dates, apricots and pecans for topping

Bring the water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the oats and cinnamon stick, stirring until the oats are evenly moistened. Cover and let sit at room temperature 8 to 12 hours.

When ready to cook, stir in the milk, vanilla, salt, dates and apricots. Cover the pan and set it over medium heat. Once the mixture comes to a simmer, remove the lid and stir. Leave the pan uncovered and stir occasionally until the oatmeal is thick and creamy, 15 to 20 minutes.

The oats themselves should be tender and slightly chewy. Stir in the pecans and brown sugar.

Serve the oatmeal in individual bowls topped with extra fruit and nuts. Leftovers can be refrigerated and reheated for up to one week.

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