CHRISTMAS BREAKFAST

The oft-neglected holiday meal can be done well — and well ahead of time

A breakfast strata provides a festive start to Christmas morning, with all the work done the night before.

Story and photo by Katherine Larson
It is with considerable trepidation that I launch into the topic of this month’s excursion into culinary delights, the Christmas breakfast.
Think of all the toes I risk trampling. People’s religious sensibilities. Their family heritage. Their childhood memories. The sense of loss that can overwhelm the grieving at holiday times, and the sense of frustration that can overwhelm those for whom December 25 is just another day. To all of you, I underscore: I empathize, I respect your situation, and I honor you for it.
So why write about the Christmas breakfast at all? Because for many, this meal is both important and challenging. You’d like to do it right, whatever “right” may mean. But golly! right can be difficult to achieve.
Maybe you stayed up late for a Christmas Eve midnight service or a bibulous cocktail party. Maybe you are hosting a houseful of folks including that one family member who is guaranteed to bring out your worst side. Maybe you’re trying to balance the needs of clamorous children, sulky teens, self-important adults, needy elders.
Very likely, breakfast is the least of your culinary concerns on Christmas morning. You’re thinking ahead to a big feast, or you’re trying to herd the family out the door in time for a service, or the young cousins are running wild around the tree. Still, a box of cold cereal and a bottle of milk somehow does not do justice to most celebrants’ vision of this morning.
So what to do?
The internet is filled with ideas for Christmas breakfast, but most of them require some haggard person to be hard at it in the kitchen for an hour or two before the table is set. For most of us, this is unrealistic. Even if life is unusually peaceful in your house, now is not the time to hide out in the kitchen, be-floured and be-egged to the elbow. Not for breakfast. For breakfast, you want to sit by the fire, enjoy your coffee or tea, and relish the good music on the radio, or the sight of children frolicking, or the calm of snow falling…
The way to accomplish this is with a strata.
Stratas bear a vague family resemblance to bread puddings, only more so—for feast days, much more so. Their salient characteristic is that the preparation process not only can but must be accomplished well ahead of time. Here, then, is my gift to that harried cook: put the thing together the previous evening, or even the day before; stash it in the fridge; then, when you get up in the morning, pop it into the oven for an hour.
That’s it. Spend the hour emptying stockings, delving into that new book, watching the kids cavort, sipping orange juice, listening for the coffee to percolate… And then, ta dah! a feast for all ages, young and old, to enjoy.
Too easy?
Well, of course, it’s not quite that easy. You do have to engage in some preparation 12 or 24 or 36 hours beforehand. But it’s in the preparation process that you have the opportunity to truly customize the strata to match your own and your guests’ preferences. And you’re doing it all in relative peace, before the celebratory clamor takes hold.
In that peaceful moment, you’ll want a tray, a small bowl, a large bowl, and a casserole dish. The tray is for your bread cubes, to let them dry out a bit. The small bowl is to mix your milk and eggs in; the large bowl is to collect all the other ingredients as you prepare them; the casserole dish will be the ultimate receptacle of the whole shebang. It will go on the table, so if you have a festive one use it.
You will have gathered that, at its most basic, a strata involves bread, an egg-milk mixture, and good things that add flavor. But each of these invites thought, attention to what’s fresh and good and available, and care for the needs of your guests. Accordingly, what I offer is more a disquisition upon possibilities than a prescriptive recipe. Read, ponder, and decide for yourself.
Bread. A little stale is actually best, so plan ahead if you can. The texture and flavor of your bread will, like all the other ingredients, affect the end product. A limp, flaccid, pale simulacrum of bread—mass-produced stuff filled with chemicals—will do your strata no favors. The bread would soggify down into a sort of gummy goop. But nor will the opposite end of the spectrum, a dense crusty dark loaf packed with seeds, work. That kind of bread would overwhelm the whole dish.
What you want is something in the middle: a bread with an appropriate texture and flavor. That flavor can go all sorts of directions. A nice Finnish pulla will add a whiff of cardamom to your end product. Or a nice challah for a hint of sweetness. A nice sourdough will add tang, but you might need to remove crusts for the sake of the strata’s eventual texture. Think about the other ingredients you’ll be adding, and pick a flavor of bread that will go with them.
How much bread? If you are serving eight people out of an 8 x 11 pan, about half a pound of bread should do. Dice it up and, if you have time, let the diced bread sit out on a tray for a few hours or overnight to dry.
Milk-egg mixture. Eggs are easy: the best and freshest you can get, from the happiest hens you know—your own, or your neighboring farmer’s, or the most local and least factory-produced you can buy.
For milk, people disagree. Some swear by whole milk while some are happy with 1% or skim. Some say heck, it’s Christmas, let’s go with cream; to my taste, that’s awfully rich for this dish. Some enjoy the tang of buttermilk. I say, suit yourself.
How much milk? How many eggs? Again hypothesizing that 8 x 11 pan, say four eggs and two cups of milk, with an extra splash of milk if things look dry when you put it all together.
Other ingredients. Here is the heart of the strata, the set of choices that affect the finished dish most profoundly. These choices are also the most individualized; your preferences rule. I like sausage, but if, say, you and your guests prefer bacon or ham or ground beef or smoked fish or tofu crumbles, hooray!—go for it. It is essential, though, that whatever ingredients you choose must harmonize well together.
Because the people I typically feed enjoy the combination of sausages, onions, mushrooms, green peppers, garlic, and cheese, that’s what I discuss here.
So, sausage. Italian sausage? Breakfast sausage? To me, those are both delicious in this context, but I wouldn’t pick a Germanic version like, say, bratwurst. Whatever I do choose, again I look for the best possible version, which comes from local farms and has no nitrates. It’s important to cook it ahead of time and drain off the fat before adding it to the large bowl. It’s also important to think about the size of the pieces of sausage your guests will encounter: too big, and guests will be startled and a little intimidated; very small, and guests will eat a strata that seems less about sausage chunks and more gently permeated with sausage aroma. A third of a pound will suffice.
Onions. I like to use two, because that way they serve very different purposes. One is sliced and caramelized, low and slow, because I love the deep brown sweetness that caramelized onions impart.
The other is chopped and added to the large bowl raw, because I love the way that its juices subtly enhance the final dish and because, if I don’t mince them too fine, they still offer a bit of recognizable texture even after baking.
Mushrooms. Oh, how I love mushrooms! And, if your strata is meatless, I do hope you decide to include some, because mushrooms in quantity provide a rich, deep, meaty flavor. But only if you treat them right.
Treating mushrooms right involves sautéing them ahead of time and giving them plenty of space when you do so. When cookbooks instruct—as they so often do—to sauté something like two cups of chopped onions and half a pound of mushrooms together, I cringe. No way will those mushrooms ever really sauté; they’ll just steam in the mingled juices.
No, give your mushrooms a big sauté pan all to themselves, with a good big knob of butter, and don’t cut the pieces too small. Scatter them so they don’t touch each other, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper, and let them get good and brown on one side before flipping to the other. Yes, they’ll have shrunk quite a bit by the time they’re crispy, but oh, that concentrated essence-of-mushroom flavor!
The green pepper, on the other hand, I just add raw, after chopping it up fairly small, for the same reason I add one of those onions raw. Even after an hour’s baking, they’ll still have a little color and crunch.
Garlic, like onions, can benefit from differential treatment: one clove minced and added to the onion being caramelized in the last few minutes of its cooking, to mellow out any potential harshness; another clove minced and added raw for those (like my family) who love its bite.
Finally, cheese. Once more, quality matters. Also once more, personal preference matters. I myself love a good Swiss Gruyère, but perhaps you prefer a mild Monterey Jack or a Cheddar, mellow or sharp. Whatever you pick, I never recommend the pre-shredded stuff (which is typically fairly tasteless, and dusted with anti-caking agents at the factory). For this dish I generally choose to dice cheese rather than shred it because I like the way little dollops of melted cheese reveal themselves as hidden treasures. Somewhere between a quarter and half a pound of cheese should do nicely.
Okay! We made all our decisions. We have a big bowl of prepared ingredients, a little bowl of milk and eggs whisked together, and a tray of drying bread. Add the bread to the big bowl (along with a few herbs or spices that catch your fancy, if you like, along with salt and pepper), then gently stir in the milk-egg mixture. Add more milk if necessary; at this stage, soggy is fine.
Turn the whole thing into the buttered casserole dish; cover it; refrigerate it; and go on with the rest of your life until morning. Then, when people start stirring, uncover the dish and bake it at 350 degrees for an hour.
That will provide time to make the coffee, pour the orange juice (champagne optional), maybe cut up a little fruit into pretty bowls. And there you are: a festive treat for a festive day.

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