We did Christmas dinner—really did it. “We” being my mother, who is an excellent cook of Italian persuasion and happiest when she’s feeding 15 people or more. She nearly heated the house with her cooking alone, the windows steaming up so the twinkle lights in the bushes outside looked melty and soft from the kitchen-side of the glass. There was lasagna or shells stuffed with lemony ricotta, or meatballs simmered all afternoon in their sauce, or pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, or a ham, or a platter of seafood pasta. There was shrimp to start, mashed potatoes, marinated mushrooms and garlic bread alongside, ricotta pie from the Italian bakery and biscotti paved with red and green sanding sugars to finish. The adults would have coffee and wine and digestifs and we’d all go downstairs to exchange presents.
Then, when everyone had left and the dishes had been loaded into the dishwasher and the wine glasses assembled by the sink, my brother and I would go anxiously and starry-eyed to bed, mistaking the shuffling of the mice in the attic for reindeer. Our parents would stay up until the wee hours playing Santa. I do not remember Christmas morning breakfasts in the same way I do the dinners.
In the past few years, we’ve simplified as we’ve grown up and spread out. One year, when I was in high school, we had my Jewish best friend’s family for dinner—a much smaller, more demure evening that ended in a happy game of Bananagrams. Since college, we’ve ordered Chinese food. And since I’ve been able to stake a corner of the kitchen for myself, I have taken charge of breakfast, which I make the night before, following our Christmas Eve sesame noodles and spring rolls.
In years when we want a sweet breakfast, I make cinnamon rolls, completing the recipe to the point of slicing the rolls and sticking them in a pan, then covering them with plastic wrap, refrigerating them overnight, and baking them while we make coffee the next morning.
When savory breakfasts are in order, it’s strata, a custardy, wonderful, make-ahead egg dish that’s part French toast and part bread pudding and entirely perfect for holiday breakfasts. Make it in individual buttered ramekins (bake for a slightly shorter time), or double it and bake in a 9x13-inch pan if your in-laws are visiting; add leftovers—ham or (cooked!) greens or broccoli or the stragglers from the Christmas Eve bread basket. And make it as far ahead as Christmas Eve morning, so that come 10 p.m. on the 24th, the only thing you have to worry about is getting all the presents wrapped.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, separated
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped, stems reserved and finely chopped
1/2 large loaf of soft, not-too-dense rye bread, crusts cut off, cut into 1/2-inch cubes to yield 5 cups cubes
1 1/2 cups whole milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup crème fraîche
Caraway seeds (optional)
How to Make It
Butter a 9x9-inch pan and set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan while you slice the onion and the dill stems, roughly chopping and reserving the dill fronds, and setting aside. Add the onion, dill stems, and a pinch of salt to the butter and sauté over medium-low heat until soft and fragrant (but not brown). Put the onions in the 9x9-inch pan and return the frying pan to the heat.
Add the remaining tablespoon of butter, melt, add the bread cubes, and increase the heat to medium-high. Stir every few minutes, so that the cubes toast lightly on all sides. Add the toasted cubes to the pan on top of the onions.
Beat together the eggs and the milk and season with salt and pepper. Pour over the bread and use your (clean!) hands to press the bread down into the custard. Cover with foil and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to a day.
About an hour and a half before you’d like to eat, remove the strata from the fridge and let it sit out while you preheat the oven to 350° F. Set the foil off to the side while you dollop the crème fraiche over the top of the strata, spreading it around gently; sprinkle the chopped dill on, and top with lots of black pepper. Sprinkle with a few caraway seeds if you like. Put the foil back on and bake the strata, covered, for 45 minutes; then remove the foil, increase the heat to 400° F, and bake uncovered for 10 minutes more, until slightly browned on top. Let sit 5 minutes or so (while you run around refilling coffee cups) before slicing into it. Top with more fresh dill to taste.