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Christmas mornings call for do-ahead meals Food: On this hectic holiday, a prepared casserole brings sweet relief.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Wendy Vogelberger of Cockeysville came home from the hospital a few days before Christmas two years ago with newborn Kurt, the last thing on her mind was a holiday breakfast.

There was a baby to feed. Two-year-old Cole and husband, Mark, to tend to. Packages to wrap.

So when a neighbor dropped off an egg casserole on Christmas Eve that only needed to be popped in the oven in the morning, Vogelberger was thrilled. As gifts were unwrapped the next day, the hearty aroma of the dish wafted through the house, tantalizing the sleep-deprived mom's taste buds.

Now, the casserole has become a family favorite.

But even if you don't have a new infant in the house, do-ahead meals make the hectic holiday morning a lot easier amid the avalanche of wrapping paper and ribbon. A substantial breakfast also will keep the family going strong until dinner, regardless of how many candy canes and chocolate Santas are consumed.

Preparation is the key, says cookbook author Nathalie Dupree.

"Make sure you do something you know well or something you've done before or that is non-fail," says Dupree, whose book, "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining: At Home With Ease and Grace" (Viking, 1998) includes several breakfast recipes. "Make sure you have the right amount of butter, flour and other ingredients."

She cautions cooks about having unrealistic expectations. If you never make waffles, this is probably not the time to get creative.

"Expectations are so high," says the Georgia resident. "Everybody is anxious. There's all this emotional stuff going on."

Also, think about how you are going to handle mishaps, she stresses. "Make a decision that if someone breaks the Christmas china, it isn't the worst thing in the world. If it is, put it away. Just don't use it."

At the Vandiver Inn in Havre de Grace, chef-innkeeper Robert Scardina is used to feeding 18 hungry visitors for breakfast. He always starts preparing food the night before, he says.

"That was the birth of the [french-toast] casserole," he says."It allows you to spend more time with your guests."

If you're looking for easily assembled dishes for Christmas morning, holiday brunches or when you have overnight company, give the following recipes a try.

Basic Breakfast Strata

Serves 6 to 8

1 1/2 pounds bulk sausage

2 cups sliced mushrooms

1/2 cup finely chopped onions

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups milk

1 large loaf day-old Italian bread, cut into 18 to 20 slices, crusts removed, buttered if desired

1 1/2 cups grated Swiss or Cheddar cheese

Butter a 2 1/2 -quart souffle dish or casserole. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add sausage. Brown the sausage for 5 minutes, breaking it up with a fork as it cooks. Add mushrooms and onions. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine eggs and milk. Place a layer of bread in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Top with half the sausage mixture and sprinkle with one-third of the cheese. Repeat with another layer of bread, the other half of the sausage and another 1/2 cup cheese. Cover with a third layer of bread.

Slowly pour milk and egg mixture over the top and sprinkle with the last 1/2 cup grated cheese. Let the strata stand for at least one hour or cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Set a baking sheet on the lowest rack of the oven to catch any drips and bake the strata until the top is nicely browned and bubbly, about one hour.

-- From "The New All-Purpose Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

Orange and Banana Salad With Yogurt Dressing

Serves 4 to 6

2 navel oranges

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped mint

3 bananas, sliced

yogurt dressing (below)

Grate the orange peels and reserve for the dressing. Then peel the oranges, removing all the white pith. Cut oranges into 1/4 -inch slices to make wagon wheels, or section them, removing all membranes.

Combine the oranges and mint. Refrigerate, covered, a couple of hours or overnight. Add the bananas no more than one hour before serving. Put the salad in a glass serving bowl and serve with the yogurt dressing on the side.

Dressing:

Makes 1 cup

1 cup plain yogurt

1 teaspoon grated orange peel

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

4 teaspoons honey

Combine the yogurt, peel, orange juice and honey. Refrigerate, covered, until needed. Serve on the side with fruit or poundcake.

D8 -- From "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining"

Gingerbread Oven Pancake With Caramelized Fruit

Serves 4 (can be doubled)

1/2 cup regular, low-fat or nonfat milk

3 large eggs

2 tablespoons molasses

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar, divided

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 large Golden or Red Delicious apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

confectioners' sugar for topping (optional)

double whipped cream (below) (optional)

berries for garnish (optional)

Place oven rack on bottom rung and preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

To make batter: In a food processor with the metal blade or a large bowl with a whisk, process or whisk milk, eggs, molasses, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg until blended.

Mix in flour and 1/4 cup brown sugar until blended. If using a whisk, the batter will remain slightly lumpy. Let stand while preparing the fruit. (Batter may be refrigerated, covered, overnight.)

To bake: In a 10-inch nonstick skillet (or 12-inch skillet if recipe is doubled) with oven-proof handle (or wrap handle in double thickness of foil), melt butter or margarine over moderate heat; swirl to coat bottom.

Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar and cook, stirring, until sugar melts and bubbles.

Add apples and stir to coat, about 30 seconds. Whisk or process batter to blend and pour over hot fruit.

Immediately transfer skillet to oven and bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until puffed and crisp around edges.

If desired, sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. Cut into wedges and serve with a dollop of double whipped cream and additional fruit, if desired.

Double Whipped Cream

Makes 4 cups

1 cup heavy cream, chilled

1 cup light sour cream, chilled

1/3 cup confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon peach schnapps, apricot brandy, Grand Marnier or other liqueur (optional)

In a mixing bowl with electric mixer, beat heavy cream until soft peaks form. Add sour cream, sugar, vanilla and liqueur, if using, and continue beating until soft peaks form. (Cream may be refrigerated in a covered container overnight.)

-- From "Entertaining on the Run" by Marlene Sorosky (William Morrow and Co., 1994)

French Toast Casserole

Serves 6 to 8

10-12 slices bread, cubed

12 eggs, beaten

2 cups milk

1/4 to 1/2 cup maple syrup

8 ounces cream cheese, cut into pieces

cinnamon sugar

optional toppings: Maple syrup, strawberry preserves, fried apples with raisins or dried cherries, powdered sugar or apple butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 9-inch-by-11-inch pan. Place cubed bread in pan evenly. Pour eggs, milk and syrup over bread cubes. Dot mixture with cream-cheese pieces. Sprinkle mixture with cinnamon sugar.

Refrigerate overnight. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. Cut into portions.

-- From Vandiver Inn

Pub Date: 12/23/98

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