Make-ahead Sticky Buns (front) and Merry Christmas Strata) and are two options for a special start to the day. Styling by C.W. Cameron.
Thanksgiving may have a pre-set menu, but the meals Christmas Day — not to mention the options for Christmas Eve and Boxing Day — offer a lot more room to be creative. And though many of us skimp on breakfast much of the time, Christmas morning is tailor-made for serving something luxurious.
If you want to prepare a special breakfast but don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen away from family and friends, we’ve got recipes: A strata and freshly baked sticky buns can be prepared a day or two ahead, requiring only a preheated oven and a little baking time to get them table-ready.
If you’d like to spend your time after the presents have been opened with everyone gathered in the kitchen helping, then you could make pancakes or waffles, or go a little more international with our Parisian Street Vendor Crepes.
To see what we could learn about working ahead, we talked to Susan Reid, editor of King Arthur Flour’s subscription newsletter the Baking Sheet — a bimonthly magazine filled with seasonal recipes and answers to readers’ questions.
Reid grew up in New Jersey, one of six kids. “On Christmas morning, my mother serves a strata, prepping the whole thing the night before, and using the time/bake feature on her stove. When we get home from church, the strata is 15 minutes away from being done.” The Reid family strata features cheese, mushrooms and sausage. With 27 people in the immediate family, the strata has to stretch pretty far, augmented with orange juice, coffee and an avalanche of baked goods.
What about those baked goods, and especially the ones made with yeast? Reid had lots of tips to offer based on her readers’ questions and those called in to King Arthur’s bakers hotline (802-649-3717).
Rapid rise yeast is what Reid calls a “sprinter,” good for a dough that has only one rise. Use instant or active dry yeast for doughs that rise once, then are shaped and rise a second time before baking. They’re exchangeable in most recipes.
Using water to “test” the yeast to see if it’s still alive is a holdover from the past, when active dry yeast was the only type most people used. It’s still a good idea with active dry yeast, but unless your instant yeast is very old, you can just incorporate it into your dough with the rest of the ingredients.
Don’t worry about how much flour to use when the recipe calls for a range, like 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 cups. “The answer is that you need to put your hands in the dough,” Reid said. If it’s wet and sticky, add more flour. The idea is to start with the low number and add more if it’s needed.
Sweet doughs need to be soft and a little sticky to make tender products. Flour your hands instead of the dough to make working with it easier.
You’ll never have to be intimidated by the temperature of the water or other liquid you’re adding to your dough if you’ll remember that yeast is a living creature, and it wants to grow in an environment that’s just a little warmer than your body temperature. “If it’s comfortable for your hand, it’s comfortable for the yeast,” Reid said. Err on the side of cooler if you have any question, because yeast will grow even in your refrigerator. But if the liquid is too hot, you’ll kill it.
You can slow down any yeast dough at any stage by refrigerating it. Mix the dough in the morning, put it in an oiled bag, take it out in the evening, shape it and it’s ready to go. That’s what bakeries do. The long, slow rise in the refrigerator makes for more flavor.
Whether you want a delicious hot breakfast that can bake while the family is opening gifts or you’re looking for something that will give everyone a reason to gather in the kitchen, we’ve got three great ideas for you.
Parisian Street Vendor Crepes
Hands on: 20 minutes Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, includes standing time for batter Makes: 20 (6-inch) crepes
Crepes are just a skinnier version of pancakes, served with a delicious filling. Crepe batter takes just a minute to make but needs a few minutes to rest before cooking. While the batter is resting, you can prepare your filling. We’ve offered two filling suggestions, but the possibilities are endless. A classically trained chef would tell you that a well-prepared crepe should be perfectly smooth and have no color, or maybe just a few freckles.
For the crepes:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
11/2 cups (12 ounces) milk
4 large eggs
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the Nutella and banana filling, per crepe:
1 tablespoon Nutella
1/2 banana, sliced
Confectioners’ sugar for garnish, optional
For ham and cheese filling, per crepe:
1 tablespoon chopped deli ham
1 tablespoon grated Swiss cheese
In a blender, combine flour, milk, eggs, butter and salt. Blend until smooth. Cover and allow batter to sit for at least 1 hour.
Heat a 6-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Spray the pan lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Pour a scant 1/3 cup batter into the bottom of the pan, pick it up and tip it in a circle so the batter covers the bottom of the pan. Cook until the top no longer looks shiny and edges start to lift from the pan, about 30 seconds. Use an offset spatula or butter knife to lift edge of crepe and flip it over in the pan. Cook for 15 seconds more and move to a warm plate. Repeat with remaining batter.
Fill crepes while still warm. For Nutella and banana filling, spread crepe with Nutella, add banana, then fold into quarters. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, if desired. For ham and cheese crepes, toss ham and cheese together and fill crepe. Fold into quarters.
Adapted from “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion” (Countryman Press, $35)
Per crepe, with Nutella and banana: 224 calories (percent of calories from fat, 33), 5 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 9 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 51 milligrams cholesterol, 91 milligrams sodium.
Per crepe, with ham and cheese: 132 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 7 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 62 milligrams cholesterol, 205 milligrams sodium.
Make-ahead Sticky Buns
Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling time Makes: 16 rolls
For cooks who are new to yeast, the baking powder in this dough provides extra insurance for a light roll. The dough does all its rising in the refrigerator, so you can start these rolls a day or two ahead of time, then just take them out of the refrigerator as you preheat the oven.
Turn these buns into cinnamon rolls by eliminating the glaze and topping the baked rolls with an icing of confectioners’ sugar mixed with just enough milk to make a spreadable consistency. Or make honey buns by substituting honey for the corn syrup called for in the glaze.
For the dough:
1 cup warm water
1 package (1/4 ounce, 21/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional if needed
In a measuring cup, combine water and yeast and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine 3 cups flour, potato flakes, sugar, dry milk, butter, vanilla, egg, baking powder and salt. Turn on mixer to low speed to combine. Slowly pour in yeast mixture and continue mixing on slow speed until a soft dough is formed, about 5 minutes. If dough is too soft, add up to 1/2 cup additional flour. The goal is a soft sticky dough but one that holds its shape on the dough hook.
In a medium mixing bowl or food-safe plastic bag, add vegetable oil and swirl to coat all sides. Put dough into bowl or bag. Cover or seal and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
When ready to shape rolls, remove dough from refrigerator. While still cold, roll out on oiled work surface into a 12-by-16-inch rectangle. In a small bowl, make filling by blending sugar, butter and cinnamon together with your fingers. Spread across dough. Starting with a long edge, roll the dough into a log. Using a serrated knife, slice dough into 16 pieces.
Lightly grease two 9-inch round pans. Make the glaze by combining brown sugar, corn syrup and butter in microwave-safe measuring cup and heating 1 minute, or until butter is melted. Stir to combine, and then pour half into each prepared pan. Sprinkle 1/2 cup chopped pecans over glaze in each pan. Place one sliced bun in the center of each pan, and surround with 7 more pieces. Cover pans and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
When ready to serve, remove buns from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until tops are lightly golden brown and buns feel firm when pressed. Remove buns from oven and invert them onto a serving dish. Scrape off any sticky topping that has remained in the pan onto the buns.
Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling time Serves: 6
A strata is a savory bread pudding, an easy make-ahead dish that’s completely adaptable. The red and green bell peppers strike just the right holiday note but you can substitute roasted red peppers and fresh or canned green chiles if you prefer. Replace the ham with sausage, or simply eliminate the meat; swap out cheddar or Swiss for the Asiago; use mustard instead of pesto or adapt the flavors to suit your guests.
In small skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter and sauté onions, red and green bell peppers over low heat until softened, but not browned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Spray a 2-quart baking dish with nonstick spray. In a large mixing bowl, toss bread cubes, sautéed onions and peppers, ham and 11/2 cups Asiago. Put bread cube mixture in baking dish.
Melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter and, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together with eggs, milk, pesto, salt, Tabasco and pepper. Slowly pour over bread cube mixture. Push top of the bread down into the milk and egg mixture to be sure all pieces are covered. Sprinkle remaining Asiago over the top. Cover dish with wax paper and then foil, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove wax paper and foil and place baking dish in upper third of oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until puffy and brown. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Adapted from “Morning Food: From Cafe Beaujolais” by Margaret S. Fox and John Bear (1994, paperback)
● Prepare buttered hot cider by adding a little sugar and orange juice to apple juice or cider, and then heating with spices such as whole cloves and cinnamon sticks. Stir in 1/2 tablespoon of butter before serving
● Serve spiced tea by steeping your regular brew with whole spices such as cinnamon and cardamom pods. Strain the spices, serve with milk and sweeten to taste.
● Put a spoonful of whipped cream on top of fresh hot coffee. You’re drinking kaffee mit schlag, a Viennese favorite.
● Ambrosia is the classic Christmas fruit salad. Serve a creamy version by stirring in a mixture of 1 part sour cream, 1 part yogurt and 1 part whipped cream. Sweeten to taste.
● Try a hot fruit dish by combining fresh or canned fruit with a few tablespoons of butter and brown sugar. The classic combination is peaches with a little amaretto.
● Or sauté bananas with butter, some brown sugar or honey and the liqueur or extract of your choice.
● Whip up a quiche using a homemade or store-bought pie crust with the same filling (minus the bread cubes) as that in our Merry Christmas Strata.
● Make decadent French toast using a soaking mixture created by melting your favorite flavor of ice cream and mixing it with three eggs.
● Mix honey, maple syrup and rum or rum flavoring to make a special syrup for pancakes or French toast.
● Offer grits but instead of serving them with eggs and bacon, make a cream sauce, spiced with a little jalapeño or bell pepper, and add steamed shrimp.