The Mornings We Fill with Tasty Delights

A breakfast strata. Michael Heller photo

A breakfast strata. Michael Heller photo

By Kathryn G. Menu

From Thanksgiving dinner to New Year’s Day Brunch, holiday meals can become family traditions even with the simple flip of a perfectly cooked homemade pancake.

Whether you watch what you eat on Thanksgiving morning in preparation for a big feast ahead, or punctuate the joy of Christmas morning with children by joining together over bacon and eggs, holiday breakfasts can be as varied as the Feast of Seven Fishes.

The thing with Thanksgiving dinner is you know what you’re going to get: some variation of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy. Other sides come and go, turkeys are baked, brined, deep-fried, grilled, and stuffed, and traditions obviously vary from family to family. But with breakfast, the options truly are endless. My husband Gavin’s side of the family has long treated Christmas morning as a way to recover from the frenzy of opening presents with a roomful of young children with a breakfast feast for the ages. Fresh-squeezed orange juice is passed around (some with a splash or two of Veuve Cliquot), holiday music fills the room and we take to the kitchen for a bold cup of Christmas Blend.

Toasted bagels with Nova smoked salmon and cream cheese.

Toasted bagels with Nova smoked salmon and cream cheese.

Being that we live in New York and in close proximity to some of the finest bagel-making establishments in the world, one of our Christmas morning mainstays is a huge platter of toasted bagels served with smoked salmon and cream cheese, tomatoes, capers, red onion and lemon. We reserve this great New York tradition almost exclusively for Christmas morning, which makes it that much more enjoyable. But the morning spread does not end there.

Another tradition is Gavin’s mom’s sausage and peppers served alongside scrambled eggs. We joke at times that she has lost her edge in the kitchen with three children now pushing well into their forties, but the one dish she consistently brings to the table with excellence is her Christmas morning sausages, served in a rich tomato sauce with white beans that blends perfectly with the soft scrambled eggs — bagel crusts used to sop up every last drop.

If either one of these breakfast traditions were to go away one year, there could be revolt. The same can be said for my grandma’s egg pancakes — a mainstay during the holiday season, and in particular on New Year’s Day.

While a treat we reserve largely for the winter months, my grandma, Marjorie, taught me and my twin sister, Johnna, how to make this traditional Norwegian recipe during the scorching summer mornings we spent in her Rancho Mirage home. The key to these pancakes — fluffy and light and, for me, the only way this breakfast treat should be made — is separating the egg yolks and whites, whipping the latter into downy peaks that are then carefully folded into the batter just before cooking the cakes on a griddle.

Grandma Marje also made her own syrup — there was no Aunt Jemima in her pantry. While Gavin is partial to Vermont maple syrup, homemade pancake syrup is a simple sauce to whip up, filling the kitchen with a sweet smell made more aromatic with the addition of a touch of flavoring — you could use fruit zests or oils, or, if going for a more traditional syrup, a splash of real vanilla extract.

For a more holiday-like treat that can be on the savory side, look to breakfast strata, a custardy, cheesy and egg dish prepared the night before and left to marinate overnight. Strata — perhaps most hilariously featured in the holiday movie, “The Family Stone” — layers, in its most traditional form, cubed Italian bread, eggs whipped with milk or cream and nutmeg, ham or Canadian bacon, and sautéed spinach and garlic. The beauty of strata, however, is that is can be tailored to feature basically any flavor profile you desire. A French Toast strata incorporating brioche, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, mascarpone and breakfast sausage or bacon, is as easily whipped together as the more savory versions — which could be adapted to use a variety of hard grated cheeses, vegetables like spinach, tomatoes, and mushrooms, and meats like bacon, Italian sausage, and prosciutto.

Perhaps the most important ingredient in all of these dishes, of course, is sharing them with family and friends, and the memories made in a warm kitchen creating a nourishing meal. Like my grandmother, we are passing our own family recipes down to our children, so they too understand that in the simple act of creating a dish, one has the power to bring people together, and offer a little comfort on a crisp winter morning.

Grandma Marjorie’s Pancakes


While this is the recipe I have created after years of cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen, it is an adaptation of her own recipe — which like many great family dishes was never written down, but done by memory and practice.

 Serves five


2 ¼ cups All Purpose Flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

2 cups whole milk

5 large eggs, separated

1 tsp. vanilla

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

2 Tbsp. sugar


Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl, and mix together. Whisk egg yolks, milk and vanilla into a medium bowl. Combine wet and dry ingredients, and whisk in 2 Tablespoons of melted butter until batter is smooth. Do not over mix your batter!

Beat egg whites in a mixer, or by hand, until soft white peaks form. Slowly add sugar, beating until the peaks are stiff. Fold egg whites into batter, slowly, careful not to over mix the batter.

Using a ladle drop pancakes onto a griddle or skillet greased with butter, cooking on each side until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Serve hot.

Christmas Morning Breakfast Strata

The German "Strata" dish, as prepared by Kathryn Menu on 11/2/16

Serves six


3 Tbsp. unsalted butter

6 ounces ham

1 medium onion, diced

2 garlic gloves, minced

1 lb. baby spinach

Salt and pepper for seasoning

9 large eggs

3 cups whole milk

½ tsp. ground nutmeg

8 cups of cubed Italian bread

1 ½ cups Gruyere cheese, grated


Grease a 3-quart baking dish with 1 Tablespoon of butter.

In a large skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat. Add ham, onion and garlic and cook until onion starts to appear translucent, about three minutes. Add spinach, one cup at a time, and cook, stirring occasionally until wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.

Scatter half the cubed bread into greased baking dish, top with half the spinach/ham mixture and half of the grated cheese. Top with a second layer of bread, then spinach mixture and then cheese. Pour eggs over the dish, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake dish, covered in foil, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and cook, uncovered for 30 minutes, or until bread is golden brown and custard is set. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

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