If I had to pick a favorite holiday movie, it would probably be the 1945 classic, "Christmas in Connecticut," in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a Martha Stewart-like character who cannot actually cook. She's terrified when she is asked to make pancakes – and flip them artfully in the air – for Christmas breakfast, all in front of her rapt houseguests.
I might be terrified, too, if only because I would have to mess up my kitchen on Christmas morning. Luckily for me, the lessons I learned growing up have evolved over the years into three easy recipes for Christmas morning that are delicious and hassle-free. I credit my mom for the inspiration.
Busy with a full-time career and a growing family, my mom figured out how to catch a little extra shut-eye on Christmas morning while still providing a special breakfast treat that did not involve cracking open a box of Pop-Tarts. Her solution: a buttery Christmas stollen that actually tasted better when it had been made a couple of days in advance.
In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning when I was a child, I would wake to find a stocking full of goodies at the foot of my bed. I figured out later this move from Santa kept me so busy pulling small toys and treats out of the stocking that my parents were able to sleep until a reasonable hour – and there was always the stollen to keep hunger at bay.
Do you know stollen? The traditional Christmas bread dates to 15th-century Germany and bears some similarity to fruitcake. Its dried fruit is sometimes soaked in liquor, and a cylinder of marzipan is often baked into its center. The recipe my mother used came from "The Gourmet Cookbook, Vol. 2," published in 1957; over the years, she made adjustments, adding golden raisins, which she soaked in rum, plus candied pineapple and cherries. She never made it with a marzipan filling (which turned out to be a good thing later when my brother got married, because his wife doesn't care for almond paste).
Tiptoeing out of my bedroom just after sunrise, I would find the stollen waiting on the kitchen counter, snowcapped with a light coating of powdered sugar. My Christmas morning taste memories often revolve around toasting thick slabs of it, liberally slathering them in salted butter and dusting them with cinnamon sugar. Late in the morning, after a couple cups of coffee, my mom might fry up bacon and corn cakes – my dad's favorite breakfast. But the stollen was always the star.
It was so popular in our family that my half brother, while stationed in the Army in Germany as a young man, reportedly didn't win any local friends when he derided their stollen as not being as good as my mom's. Still, my own version is not exactly the same as the one from my childhood; I'm not a big fan of candied fruit, so I substitute dried cranberries, for a little tartness, and Amarena cherries, for a little sweetness, and I add dark chocolate (because ... dark chocolate). But the basic recipe is the same, an uncomplicated blend of flour, yeast, butter and milk, which I make in a dairy-free version for vegan friends.
Fast-forward 20 years to me sitting in the kitchen at the home of a neighborhood mom while our 2-year-olds are having a play date. Such occasions typically involved tea – okay, maybe a glass of wine – and a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies. But not this mom. She pulled a batch of gooey homemade cinnamon rolls out of the oven. When I exclaimed, between mouthfuls, that she had gone to too much trouble, she replied airily, "Not at all. I make big batches all at once and just freeze them, then pull them out when I'm ready to bake."
I don't mind saying it was a moment that rocked my world, and I knew a new baking tradition was about to grace my holiday breakfast table.
Because, as much as I adore my mother's stollen, I have a bit of a thing for sweet rolls. (Don't we all?) Not those gargantuan swirls crowned with a thick layer of cream cheese icing whose aroma wafts through a shopping mall, but pillowy puffs of yeasty dough, barely sweetened and lightly glazed. For me, they are reminiscent of the sweet rolls my husband and I used to pick up at Grandy's Farm Market in North Carolina, just before we drove across the causeway for our yearly pilgrimage to the Outer Banks, a welcome memory of sunshine during the short winter days.
My version, layered with orange marmalade in homage to the citrus groves near my parents' home in Central Florida, are quite easy to assemble in advance, although I confess I am usually too eager to eat them to freeze them for later. I do, however, take them through the first rise early on Christmas Eve, then roll and cut them, setting them for the second rise overnight in the refrigerator, or, if the weather is cold enough, in my laundry room, which tends to be chilly in the winter. In the morning, I transfer the rolls to the kitchen counter to warm up to room temperature while we open presents, then pop them into the oven for 20 minutes to bake into golden perfection.
Finally, I have begun adding make-ahead eggs to my repertoire, for those in the family who, inexplicably, eschew carbs. Baked in muffin pans, mini-frittatas can be stuffed with chives, spinach, red peppers, or sun-dried tomatoes for a Christmas-y appearance, then frozen for several weeks until you're ready to pop them in the microwave.
Just add a fresh sweet roll on the side, then get back to snuggling up next to the tree. Because no one should be standing over the stove, or cleaning up a kitchen mess, on Christmas morning.
• Hartke is a Washington food writer.
Glazed Orange Sweet Rolls
14 to 16 servings large rolls or 24 small rolls
Pillowy and not too sweet, these breakfast rolls are the sophisticated version of those cream cheese-slathered cinnamon buns you find in the food court at the mall. This version is filled with marmalade, but you could use raspberry jam instead. The glaze is made with orange juice but you could use lemon juice, or sprinkle the tops liberally with brown sugar and cinnamon and then brush them with maple syrup.
You'll need two 8-inch round cake pans or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, and an instant-read thermometer for monitoring the temperature of the almond milk mixture.
Make ahead: The dough needs to rise for 1 1/2 hours at room temperature, or it can proof in the refrigerator for up to 16 hours. The rolls can be rolled and cut, then refrigerated or frozen before baking.
– From Washington food writer Kristen Hartke.
For the dough:
3/4 cup almond milk (may substitute regular or low-fat milk)
2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest and 3/4 cup orange juice (from 3 large oranges)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted or salted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 1/2 cups flour, plus more as needed and for rolling
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 large egg, at room temperature
For the filling:
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1 tablespoon melted/cooled salted or unsalted butter
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the glaze:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the dough: Gently warm the almond milk, orange zest and juice, butter, granulated sugar and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring, until the butter has melted. The temperature of the mixture should be no more than 110 degrees F.
Combine half the flour (1 3/4 cups) and the yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer, stirring with a spoon just to incorporate. Add the warmed milk mixture and beat on low speed, and then add the egg, scraping down the sides of the bowl, as needed. Increase the speed to high; beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until smooth, then stop to add the remaining flour. Beat on low speed just until the dough forms a smooth ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. (You can add more flour, 1/4 cup at a time, if needed to form a smooth but still slightly sticky dough.)
Lightly flour a work surface. Use cooking oil spray to grease a large mixing bowl. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. Turn out onto the floured surface and punch down the dough, then cover and let it rest for 10 minutes.
While the dough is resting, make the filling: Use a fork to whisk together the marmalade and melted butter in a small bowl, and the granulated sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon in a separate small bowl. Use cooking oil spray to grease the 8-inch round cake pans or the 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
Roll out the dough into a large rectangle, about 14 by 10 inches, with a long edge parallel to the edge of the counter. Brush the marmalade mixture all over the surface of the dough, then sprinkle the surface evenly with the sugar mixture. Starting with the long edge closest to you, roll the dough like a jelly roll – you want to create a nice firm roll, but not so tight that the filling squeezes out. Cut into 14 to 16 equal slices (if you want smaller rolls, cut into 24 slices), a little over an inch wide, and place, cut sides down, into the pan(s).
For a long, refrigerated rise, cover the pan(s) with plastic wrap and chill for up to 16 hours. Then let rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours. If you prefer to bake on the same day, you can let the dough rise until it has doubled, about 45 minutes. If you want to freeze for later, then wrap the cut rolls tightly and freeze for up to 4 weeks; when you are ready to bake, let them defrost and rise, about 4 to 6 hours, in a warm place.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Uncover and bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes, until risen and golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool (in the pan) for 5 minutes, then pour the glaze evenly over the top of the warm rolls. Serve right away.
For the glaze: Whisk together the confectioners' sugar, orange juice and vanilla extract until smooth.
• Nutrition per serving (based on 16, using almond milk and unsalted butter): 210 calories, 4 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar.
• Nutrition per serving (based on 16, using low-fat milk and unsalted butter): 210 calories, 4 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 85 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar.
Mini Christmas Frittatas
6 servings (makes 12 mini-frittatas)
Whisk together a few eggs, milk and some fillings, pour it all into a muffin pan and you've got breakfast. Not only that, you can make these tasty little frittatas weeks in advance and pop them in the freezer. Just warm them up in the microwave for a couple of minutes.
Baking with a small ball of mozzarella or other type of cheese inside makes for a nice, gooey surprise when you cut into them.
Make ahead: The baked, cooled frittatas can be individually wrapped and frozen for up to 2 months.
– From Washington food writer Kristen Hartke.
8 large eggs
1/4 cup whole or low-fat milk
4 teaspoons seeded, minced red bell pepper
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Twelve 1-inch mozzarella balls (plain or marinated)
Small sweet or hot peppers, for garnish (optional)
Small basil leaves, for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard-size, 12-well muffin pan with baking paper or silicone liners.
Whisk together the eggs and milk until well blended, then mix in the bell pepper, chives and spices. Place a mozzarella ball in the bottom of each muffin cup, then evenly distribute the egg mixture among them, so that each cup is about three-quarters full.
Bake (middle rack) for about 30 minutes, until the frittatas are puffed and set; they will deflate a bit as they cool.
Serve right away, garnished with the peppers and basil, if desired. Or allow them to cool to room temperature before storing. If freezing, place the frittatas (unmold them first from the silicone liners, but paper liners can stay on) on a baking sheet and set them in the freezer until frozen, then you can place them in a plastic zip-top bag or other freezer-safe container.
• Nutrition per serving (using low-fat milk): 160 calories, 13 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 260 mg cholesterol, 330 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar.
12 servings (makes two 9-inch loaves)
Here's a stollen recipe that's easier than most; instead of candied fruit, this features dried cranberries, Amarena cherries, sliced almonds and chunks of dark chocolate.
To make mini stollen, see the Variation, below.
Make ahead: The stollen can be made at least a day in advance and frozen for up to 1 month, tightly wrapped.
Jars of Amarena cherries are available in Italian markets and some grocery stores as well as gourmet purveyors online.
– Based on a recipe from "The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook," by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez and Julia Turshen (Clarkson Potter, 2015).
For the dough:
1/2 cup almond milk, warmed to 110 degrees F. (may substitute regular or low-fat milk)
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 cups plus 1 tablespoon flour, plus more for the work surface
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest (from 1 orange)
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons vegan butter substitute, such as Earth Balance, at room temperature (may substitute salted butter; coconut oil is not recommended)
2 tablespoons dried cranberries
3 tablespoons quartered Amarena cherries (see headnote)
1/3 cup raw sliced almonds
1/3 cup coarsely chopped dark chocolate
For the topping:
2 tablespoons vegan butter substitute, such as Earth Balance, melted (may substitute salted butter)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (optional)
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar (optional)
For the dough: Pour the warmed milk into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and sprinkle the yeast over the surface; stir slightly and let stand for a few minutes until bubbles begin to form. Add 2 cups of the flour, the granulated sugar, orange zest, ground ginger, nutmeg, salt and butter substitute to the bowl; beat on low speed for about 3 minutes, until a sticky dough forms. Increase the speed to medium-high; beat for about 4 minutes, until the dough is smooth and has pulled away completely from the sides of the bowl.
Combine the dried cranberries, Amarena cherries and a tablespoon of flour in a small bowl, until well coated.
Reduce the speed to the lowest setting. Add the fruit mixture, almonds and chocolate; beat until incorporated (if you mix in the fillings too fast, then the dough can discolor). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour. The dough may not rise much, but should be soft to the touch.
Lightly flour a work surface. Uncover and turn out the dough there, then divide it equally in half. Pat each piece out into a rectangle, about 8 by 6 inches; For each one, using the long end, fold 2 inches of the end facing you toward the middle, then fold the top end just overlapping the middle (like folding a letter). Flip over gently and pat the whole top down gently with your hands, pinching the ends together slightly and forming an 8-by-3 inch log with rounded ends.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the two loaves on it, spacing them at least 3 inches apart. Then cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour. The loaves will be slightly puffed, but not doubled in size. Uncover.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake (middle rack) the loaves for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan from front to back (to ensure even baking), and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown. Let cool for 10 minutes.
For the topping: Brush the warm loaves with the melted butter substitute. At this point, you can leave the loaves as they are, or you can mix together the granulated sugar and 1/2 cup of the confectioners' sugar and dust the tops of the loaves. For a heavier coating, let the bread cool completely after this step and dust the loaves with the rest of the confectioners' sugar a second time - Hot Bread Kitchen advises that the sugar will stick better with this two-step process, and it does really create that pretty snow-covered effect.
Variation: To make mini stollen, after forming the two 8-by 3-inch logs, cut each log into four 2-inch pieces. Gently pat the pieces into slightly rounded buns and then continue with the second rise, baking according to the directions. (They take the same amount of time to bake as the large stollen.)
• Nutrition per serving (using almond milk and butter substitute): 240 calories, 3 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar.
• Nutrition per serving (using low-fat milk and salted butter): 250 calories, 4 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 100 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar.