Seasons by the Sea: Breaking the Yule Fast

Christmas breakfast
Christmas breakfast becomes Christmas brunch with cocktails like Bloody Marys and mimosas or flutes of sparkling wine. Laura Donnelly

You don’t have to celebrate Christmas to love Christmas breakfast! From friends near and far-flung, I learned of so many wonderful cuisines, cultures, and traditions. Some were elaborate, creative, and inspiring. And frankly, some were just downright sad. 

Drake’s coffee cake? No. Full-size, warm from the oven? That doesn’t make it any better.

My friend and former NPR colleague, Bill Drummond, offered to send me the Christmas breakfast menu from San Quentin prison. (Bill teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and also helps the inmates of San Quentin with their newspaper.) But then the prison went on lockdown. Then Bill said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation would get back to me by deadline. Alas, they didn’t, so I looked them up. Sadly, there has been considerable illegal drug trafficking at the prison lately so their hands are full. Apparently, drones can deliver drugs. So I found a Christmas breakfast menu from San Quentin 1928. Among many more fruits, cereals, breads, and egg dishes, there were baked apples with cream, white figs, grilled French lamb chops, eggs Vienna style, and Parker House rolls. The lunch and dinner menus were so elaborate that they’re in pidgin French.

My childhood friend Dicky Brennan is an excellent cook. His family starts the day with fresh juices, scrambled eggs, brioche with honey and jams, toasted slices of stollen, and bacon. When his brother and sister-in-law arrive by lunchtime they continue with Bloody Marys made with Clamato juice and aquavit, smoked salmon on toast points, and Alice Lees, named after his grandmother. These are savory little wedges of toasted English muffins topped with cheddar cheese, Worcestershire sauce, chutney, Tabasco, and enough mayo to bind, then broiled.

Chefs do it up right. Brian Szostak of the Bridgehampton Inn makes cinnamon roll pancakes with bourbon maple syrup. The proprietress, Sybille van Kempen, goes with a Danish-German mash-up of “anything goes frittata, smoked trout with horseradish sauce, cucumber salad, strong black tea, stollen with marzipan, and sugar plums.” Colin Ambrose of Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor whips up chicken hash on a grill in his home kitchen fireplace. Ellen White, although a superb cook and former chef, had to succumb in childhood to her Scottish father’s tastes. She wrote, “Those Scotts LOVE their offal, so we would have broiled kidneys and proper bacon, what in the U.S. is called Canadian bacon, for breakfast.” She says she loved it.

Another former nipper, Maury Schlesinger, shared that his wife is Danish, so they have ebelskivers (little pancake balls) at Christmastime and ebelskivers serving as sufganiyot for Hanukkah. Amy Eller has what she calls “Jewish Christmas” breakfast consisting of leftover caviar and blinis fried in butter, a warmed up cranberry orange compote, hot chocolate, and champagne. This was one of my favorite menus but my question is: Who has leftover caviar?

Kathryn and Gavin Menu of The Sag Harbor Express go straight into brunch time after the kids have been fortified with Grandma Marge’s pancake breakfast. His mother makes a tomato sauce-based dish with sausage, chicken thighs, and peppers, along with eggs, bagels with the works, and home fries.

Shira Sacks-Barzilay makes a challah bread pudding with mascarpone, almond extract, and a surprise caramel sauce at the bottom. Don’t all of these menus sound delicious?

Cinnamon rolls and sticky buns were mentioned a lot, either homemade or good ol’ Pillsbury. Strata, an eggy, bread pudding-like casserole that sets over­night in the fridge before baking in the oven in the morning, is another popular item. I usually make eggs Benedict with the cheat of using Knorr’s Hollandaise sauce mix all doctored up with lemon juice and Tabasco sauce. Don’t judge me, it’s Christmas morning!

Some traditional Christmas breakfast dishes from around the world sound wonderful and worth trying, some just sound plain dreary. Would you want to wake up on Christmas day in a country where it’s cold and dark for months and months and be served riispurro, a Finnish rice porridge made with plum juice? But, hey, whoever finds the hidden almond in that cruel gruel will have good luck for the rest of the year. Hopefully that means travel to a warmer climate. The Danish also make a porridge, this one out of rye bread, called ollbrod. Their dish known as aebleflaesk sounds much more appealing: roast apples with bacon, onions, and thyme. More tasty options are atole (thick hot chocolate) from Mexico, which becomes champurrado when you add cinnamon. Croatians make povitica, a walnut-swirled, lightly sweetened bread, and krofne, doughnuts filled with jams or jellies or custard. The Belgians and Greeks make sweet breads representing swaddled baby Jesus or the cross. 

In Jamaica, along with callaloo, beef liver, breadfruit, and fried plantains, they have their national dish for Christmas, ackee and saltfish. This is a saute that resembles scrambled eggs: codfish, boiled ackee, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic.

I recently took a 23andMe DNA test. It was no surprise that I am mostly Irish. But with a mostly Norwegian grandmother (Wiborg) and fully Norwegian immigrant great-grandfather, I assumed I was a decent fraction Scandinavian. But zut alors! Mon dieu! I am more French than Norwegian. Some of my dead relatives have a lot of explaining to do. That being said, I suppose we may be having  oeufs en cocotte avec croissants et brioche this coming Christmas morning. Joyeux Noel and joyeuses fetes everyone, whatever you celebrate, wherever you are, and whatever you eat.

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