On Christmas morning, do you open the presents first or eat breakfast? Growing up in my house, we did neither. We woke up, dressed for church, loaded into the station wagon and spent the next interminable hour not thinking about the true meaning of Christmas at all.
Finally, finally, we’d get home and open our presents. Nobody cared about breakfast. In fact, Mom, a super cook who outdid herself for the holidays, gave herself a rare break. It was Christmas cookies for breakfast, and no one complained.
What are your Christmas breakfast traditions? Many families have a special Christmas morning ritual, observed only on that day. It could be an heirloom recipe with a long history in your family, or something new you started up for the holiday.
Your breakfast might reflect the food of the region you live in or your country of origin. It might be a lavish smorgasbord or something as simple as an overnight casserole that slides into the oven on Christmas morning.
So what do other people eat? I found there are about as many different kinds of Christmas breakfast as people we know.
Mary’s Polish grandmother made placek, a rich, sweet raisin bread, for Christmas and Easter. “It had so many eggs it was yellow,” said Mary. Raisins were worked into the dough during kneading. “She put the dough on the radiator to rise and always baked it in her chicken roaster or other cook pot.”
That dates to the early days when she used what she had — no buying loaf pans, Mary said. The large loaves were divided into chunks and distributed on Christmas Eve for breakfast the next day.
There’s no recipe. “Grandmother kept hers in her head,” said Mary. “The ingredients aren’t a mystery. It’s the proportions.”
Our friend Pam was born in the Philippines and has happy memories of bibingka, a baked rice cake made with coconut milk, for Christmas breakfast. It’s traditionally cooked in a terra cotta oven lined with banana leaves, but “that’s country cooking,” she says.
The cakes are also popular street food, she informed me, sold from carts or stands. “I was a hog. I had it as often as I could,” she remembers happily. People would buy them after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
They can be made in a cast-iron skillet if you’re not a country cook. Now her sister Jocelyn makes them in the oven at her home in Troy.
Husband Eric’s father was raised in Sweden, and his family enjoyed many traditional holiday foods such as glögg and pancakes.
“The pancakes could be any size, but they had to be very thin,” Eric said. He enjoyed them on a trip to San Francisco at an old-school restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch. There were 18 to an order, and I can report that he ate every one.
He doesn’t remember Risgryunsgröt, also known as Swedish Christmas porridge. It must have been popular in Andersonville, the Swedish neighborhood in Chicago where he went to elementary school. It’s cinnamon-scented rice porridge, or pudding, served at Christmastime.
We were supposed to be in Paris on Christmas morning this year, but have rescheduled our trip for the spring. We’ve been in the City of Light on Christmas morning before and enjoyed a traditional Parisian breakfast of sweet pastries such as pain au chocolat and brioche with full-bodied coffee. Or champagne.
It’s hard to find good, flaky, crackling croissants in this area, the kind with the soft, moist spiral of layers inside. A few places, like Mrs. London’s Bakery in Saratoga Springs and The Placid Baker in Troy, make ones I think measure up.
My mother’s parents were from eastern Europe and she grew up eating pierogies and stuffed cabbage, and of course, stollen, the traditional German sweet bread made for the Christmas season.
Stollen, a yeast bread enriched with raisins, almonds and candied citrus peel, was a perennial holiday food in our house, and often ended up on our plates on Christmas morning. We loved to toast it, mindful of the layer of sugar that could catch fire in the toaster. My mother was amazingly tolerant of dangerous cooking methods as long as the product was worth it. Toasting and slathering it with butter is the best and highest use of stollen. My brother Bob would agree. “I could eat a whole loaf,” he sighed.
My sister-in-law’s ancestors came from Germany, and Michele has found a way to improve our family’s stollen recipe. Traditional stollen may have a rope of marzipan added to the center. It’s optional, but raises the richness factor of the loaf, giving each slice a coin of the almond paste. Last year, after finding no marzipan on store shelves, she figured out how to make her own.
“You can make it in a food processor but you have to be careful that you don’t turn it into paste,” she advises.
Diana Rosito’s bakery on James Street in Amsterdam sells bread and pastries that are popular in Puerto Rico during the holidays.
“There’s pan de aqua,” or soft and fluffy water bread, kind of like a French loaf, that’s used to make breakfast sandwiches. “With ham and cheese,” she said. “And coffee.”
There’s pan sobao, a sweet bread also popular for breakfast. Quesitos, filled with cream cheese and honey on top, “are like a strudel,” Rosito said. She also makes mayorkas, topped with powdered sugar and filled with guava and cheese or pineapple and cheese. “Like a doughnut,” she explained, “but baked, not fried.” All excellent for Christmas breakfast.
About that overnight casserole that slides into the oven: I’ve included the recipe here. My sister-in-law in Illinois has used this recipe for 20 years at least and it’s a good one. Make it the day before, even two days before, and bake it Christmas morning. And, as my mom did, give yourself a break.
Helene’s Strata Recipe
6 slices white bread (sliced, dried, buttered on one side — whole or cubed)
1 pound grated Longhorn* or Colby cheese
2 cups ham, cubed
* a style of American Colby cheese
Layer the bread, ham and cheese in the order given in greased, 9-inch-by-13-inch pan.
Mix the below ingredients and pour over the bread, ham and cheese.
7 eggs, slightly beaten
2-1/2 cups milk
3/4 tsp. salt
Black pepper or cayenne
3/4 tsp. dry mustard
Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.
Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until firm. Bake uncovered for the last five minutes.
Optional ingredients: green peppers, onions, mushrooms.