Sunday, February 25, 2018
Cooking

Prepare make-ahead casseroles for Christmas morning enjoyment

When all the presents are open and the pile of torn wrapping paper threatens to grow taller than the tree, you can feel warm and fuzzy knowing there's still one more gift to come.

That's the eggy-cheesy-bready breakfast casserole that's bubbling away in the oven. You were on-the-ball enough to assemble it on Christmas Eve and all you have to do is bake it while the mayhem ensues. Smart cookie, you are.

Breakfast casseroles can be savory or sweet, or you can make one of each. Pair them with a bright citrus salad — especially nice if you've got a tree in your yard. Muffins or scones with an assortment of jams, plus juices and plenty of coffee round out the meal. A brilliant red pomegranate or cranberry cocktail is a nice touch.

A big holiday breakfast serves a couple of purposes. With dinner often served earlier than usual, brunch takes care of lunch, which is easy to overlook on this busy day. Brunch also allows some civilized down time for the adults and a respite from the frenzy for kids. Bless your heart if you've got little ones who've opened all their gifts by 5 a.m. Then you have to make multiple meals, unless you can convince everyone to go down for a morning nap.

To me, the overnight breakfast casserole, sometimes called a strata, is a no-brainer offering. It's always well received, especially if you select ingredients you know your crowd likes. I never have any leftovers.

At its most basic, bread cubes (or slices) are layered with sausage (or bacon) and cheese, and then an egg-milk mixture is poured over the top. Sometimes there are vegetables. It melds in the fridge overnight and when it's baked the next day, it produces a custardlike melange of goodness. When you first mix all the ingredients, it seems there is something wrong. How can this soupy mess taste like anything in the morning? Why doesn't the bread disintegrate in all that liquid?

What you are making is very much like a bread pudding. The bread soaks up the liquid and the egg mixture helps bind it as it bakes.

Warning: Let the cold mixture sit on the counter at least 30 minutes before popping into the oven. When cold glass meats hot oven, bad things can happen. A cracked baking dish, or worse yet, one that explodes, is not on the agenda for Christmas morning. I actually let the dish warm for 30 minutes, then don't turn the oven on until I put the casserole in. The preheating oven warms up the pan even more slowly.

Though it's easiest to let the mixture sit overnight, if you forget to do that, you can recover by whipping it up in the morning. If won't set up quite as well, but it will work if you give it a couple hours for the starch to absorb the liquid. Get up before everyone else — unless you have those wee sprites who spring from bed way before sunrise.

Dig in

Today's selection of mostly savory casserole recipes includes two that are vegetarian. Cheesy Potato Breakfast Casserole With Cheddar and Sun-Dried Tomatoes calls for frozen, shredded potatoes, which are convenient. It gets a lot of its flavor and texture from sun-dried tomatoes. Brie and Veggie Breakfast Strata includes a green bell pepper and you might consider mixing in red, too, for the seasonal colors. The bread here is sourdough which is a lovely combination with the creamy, soft cheese.

I love the Overnight Biscuit, Sausage and Apple Casserole, mostly because I adore everything in it. I don't make biscuits from scratch, so for this recipe I bake the frozen variety a couple days before brunch. Bread that is slightly dry is always better for overnight casseroles because it holds up to the liquid better. I use mild sausage but if you want more spice in yours, use hot.

Chicken and Chilies Breakfast Casserole includes mild canned chilies and shredded rotisserie chicken. Pepper Jack cheese is mixed with Monterey Jack for added spice. The recipe calls for Cuban bread but you can use a baguette if you like. This is a very hearty offering and a good one for guests who don't eat beef or pork.

Finally, consider French Toast Casserole. It's prepared with the same techniques as the savory versions. This recipe calls for a braided challah or a brioche loaf. Both are light breads which contributes to the tenderness of the finished produce. Whether baked or made in a skillet, French toast should be fluffy. Vanilla, cinnamon and ground ginger flavor the custard and pecans add crunch and depth.

An all-purpose fruity vinaigrette with tangy balsamic is perfect with sliced oranges, tangerines or grapefruit, or a combination. Ribbons of fresh leafy herbs, such as basil or mint, are a lovely accompaniment. Winter Citrus Salad mixes peppery arugula with citrus and fennel, dressed with a sherry vinaigrette.

The nondrinkers will enjoy a glass of pomegranate juice or pomegranate juice mixed with orange juice, but a pitcher of Pomegranate Mimosas might just be what Santa ordered to continue the festivities.

I said the casserole was the last gift, but maybe the colorful mimosas will keep the party going.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.

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