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Simply ... Entertaining: Make-ahead breakfasts great options for guests

Thursday, December 14, 2000

By Mary Miller

With the holiday season come many forms of entertaining -- lavish office parties, casual get-togethers, unexpected drop-in visitors, and the often dreaded overnight guest.

It's this lucky person who gets to see the "real you" -- the bad hair mornings, the daily ritual of digging through the laundry basket for clean socks, and the kids who are allowed to eat cookies for breakfast. Fortunately, holiday guests are usually family, or just like family, anyway.

Some house guests, like my parents, are never a problem. They already know where to find things in my house and they understand my somewhat messy style (I hold them responsible for it). Others, like an old friend from Cleveland who sneezes at the first whiff of dust, won't make eye contact with my dog (he demands it), and favors a Mozart concerto to the preteen 'NSync tunes that echo through my home, can add stress to the already boiling holiday pot.

Any wisdom I have in this area comes from experience. From being both guest and host, I have an idea about what is good and bad. Bad is when you are given a bath towel that smells like the cat has slept on it. Good is when your host puts out a fresh bar of nicely scented soap for you.

Bad is when your brother-in-law's new girlfriend announces that she eats only brown rice and fruit just as you are removing the 7-pound beef tenderloin from the oven. Good is when you know about your company's lactose intolerance ahead of time and have a milk substitute available.

Organizing and planning before the visitors arrive is essential so that everyone will have a fun and relaxing time.

Touches that anticipate every need will make everyone feel comfortable. A few soft (and clean) towels, a cozy robe, comfy slippers. A little basket of new sample size toiletries -- shampoo, conditioner, skin lotion, a toothbrush. Two soft pillows, a warm blanket. A vase filled with some fresh seasonal greens or flowers. An alarm clock/radio. A pretty container with some hard candy, fresh fruit, chocolate mints or nuts and a bottle of water left on the nightstand will pamper your guests.

Planning and preparing fantastic meals is a tough job. For me, the most difficult part involves breakfast. For dinner I can always whip up a pasta dish or go out for Mexican food, but, my family will agree, I am not my perkiest at the crack of dawn. A make-ahead morning feast is my best bet. The key is to make it simple, but special. A few unusual ingredients or a unique presentation can make ordinary food exceptional.

A breakfast entree that can be made the night before serving and refrigerated, to be baked the next morning, fills the bill perfectly. Many sausage casseroles and French toast recipes can be prepared in this way. It's easiest to prepare these recipes while cleaning up from dinner the night before. Then, once all the dishes are cleaned, the rest of the evening is open for fun.

Nothing beats the smell of waking up to something sweet baking in the oven. Did you know that muffin batter can be made and refrigerated up to three days ahead of time? Just scoop into tins and bake first thing in the morning for warm, fresh treats without the fuss. Serve the muffins with a breakfast parfait -- layers of fresh fruit, yogurt (a creamy one like Yoplait) and granola in a fancy margarita or martini glass. So easy, so beautiful, and good for you, too.

A help-yourself breakfast buffet is another effortless option. Various juices, small boxes of cereal, bagels, sliced quick breads, a few varieties of jam and jelly, maybe some cured salmon or smoked trout, hot coffee -- and you are set. Your guests can serve themselves at whatever time they crawl out of bed. And the clean-up is painless.

Having guests during the holidays can fill the house with warmth, love, and laughter. Indulge and spoil your family and friends with these make-ahead breakfast recipes.

Overnight Strata Cups

This is a reduced-fat variation of the typical Breakfast Sausage Casserole. The muffin shaped servings are easy to serve and reheat well.

2 slices whole wheat bread, cubed
1/2 cup shredded reduced-fat Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup reduced-fat cooked ham, diced
2 tablespoons chopped red pepper
2 tablespoons sliced green onions
3 eggs or the equivalent of egg substitute
3/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch of salt and pepper

In a small bowl, toss together bread cubes, cheese, ham, red pepper and onion. Divide evenly among 6 greased muffin cups. Whisk together eggs, milk, mustard, salt and pepper; pour slowly over each muffin cup to soak thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate for at least 4 hours or for up to 16 hours.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 25 minutes or until set. Let stand for 5 to 7 minutes. Run a clean knife around edges of each cup before gently removing from pan. Serves 6.

These muffins taste wonderful -- just like a warm cake doughnut and the batter can be prepared days ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator.

But just because they are not fried, don't assume that they are low-cal.

Doughnut Muffins

For the muffins:
12 ounces unsalted butter, warmed to room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 2/3 cups milk
1/4 cup buttermilk*

For dipping:
8 ounces unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

*I use canned, dried buttermilk mixed with the appropriate amount of water. It is found at most large grocery stores.

To make muffins: Put a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a stand mixer or a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until just mixed in. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Combine the milk and buttermilk. With a wooden spoon, mix a quarter of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Then mix in a third of the milk mixture. Continue mixing in the remaining dry and wet ingredients alternately, ending with the dry. Mix until well combined and smooth, but don't overmix.

Muffin batter can be refrigerated, covered, for up to three days before proceeding. Grease and flour a standard-size muffin tin. Scoop enough batter into each tin so that the top of the batter is even with the rim of the cup, about 1/2 cup of batter. Bake the muffins until firm to the touch, 30 to 35 minutes.

To finish: Melt the butter for the dipping mixture. Combine the sugar and cinnamon. When the muffins are just cool enough to handle -- about 5 minutes -- remove them from the tin, dip them into or brush them all over with the melted butter, and then roll them in the cinnamon sugar. Makes 24 medium muffins.

Adapted from Fine Cooking, January 2001

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