Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Rhythm of Our Family

I have been thinking a lot about rhythms lately, about those tiny little habits in our schedules, the ways that we go about our days and weeks here at home.  These years with young children can go by so fast, though the minutes often tick by more slowly than even seems possible.  My fear has long been that we would fail to develop traditions of our own, in this great game of just getting through each individual day.

It is so easy, after all, to simply go through the motions, to waste our time mired down in the minutia of life, picking up groceries and making sure the bills are paid, trying in vain to conquer Mount Laundry, and yet finding there isn't enough time to squeeze in the things that really count.  But, bedtime story doesn't have to be a chore to be ticked off at the end of the day - it can be a time to revel in the snuggles that will too soon be behind us.  Holidays don't have to be only about the big events that we don't even want to be a part of - with the tiniest bit of planning and recognition, we can mark those seasons and those days before they rush on past us.

Amanda Soule writes one of my very favorite blogs, and I have long found inspiration in the way she and her family go slowly about their days, attempting to be fully present in each moment, living mindfully and intentionally.  Each of her three books have spoken to me in turn, but this most recent book, The Rhythm of Family, is the first one that I have purchased, and have kept on my bedside table, reading it throughout the year to glean ways for my own family to find our very own rhythms.

Besides, routines work well for children.  My kids prefer knowing what is happening each day, that we will do our lessons in the morning hours and then have the afternoons for playtime or errands, and they like the weekly schedule we have for going to the library, to church on Wednesdays and Sundays, to ballet, to PE and art lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays; knowing that we will watch movies together on Sunday afternoons, and that we will find time to spend with our friends when we can.

They remember how we have celebrated various seasons and holidays and life events, no matter how silly or miniscule the ways we have developed to mark the passage of time.

We baked an apple cake for the autumnal equinox this past year, and I fully intend for that to be annual tradition.  For the past three or four years, we have gone out for Happy Meals (I know, right?) on Christmas Eve and then eaten greasy french fries while driving around to look at Christmas lights.  This year, we added the candlelight Christmas Eve service at church to our schedule, and that is something I would very much like to keep in our repertoire - it is one of my favorite memories of my own childhood, going to the candlelight service with my grandmother at her church in Virginia.  And there are other events that we make sure to participate in every year, like corn mazes in October, our tiny town Christmas parade in the beginning of each December, going to a favorite Mexican restaurant for dinner following The Boy Wonder's end-of-the-year performance at his homeschool "school."  Little traditions; small, happy habits.

Other of our rhythms need some tweaking though.  I allow the children to each pick a cartoon to watch every morning, partly out of my own need to start the days slowly, and also because I am militant about the television being turned off for the rest of the day.  But instead of using that time to read my Bible, to practice yoga, to cook a complex and leisurely breakfast, or even to take a shower and pull myself together, I have instead curled up on the sofa next to the kids and wiled away the time on Facebook or on reading blogs that I'm not even terribly interested in.  It is wasted time, a 45-minute period that doesn't edify or relax, or do anything to set a positive tone for the day.  It is just letting time pass.  And that kind of makes me shudder.

This conscious effort I have made for the past six months or so to tend to our larger familial rhythms has been good for all of us.  The children have benefited of course, but The Carnivore and I have possibly gained the most from it.  He and I both have a tendency to forget about finding ways to make the days special, and if we didn't pay attention, holidays and even whole seasons would speed right on past us before we even noticed them.  The simple fact is that most of the time, we would be content to live with our nose in a book.  But neither of us wants to turn around one day and find that the kids are teenagers and that we are running out of time to spend all together as a family.

I want to extend this effort though, and that is my sole resolution for this New Year: to find ways to be just as present in the mundane moments as I have learned to be in the special, seasonal times.  I want to be fully here, in this place, right now.

It isn't as lofty of a goal as it sounds, it is just the prosaic, ordinary moments that I am referring to, after all, but it is important enough to be my main focus for self-growth for the next twelve months.  It takes a lot of focus and tight scheduling to get everything done around here, between homeschooling, running my little bookkeeping business, supporting The Carnivore in the running of his own company, keeping the household afloat with clean clothes and nutritious meals, and carving out deliberate time to tend to my own needs for physical activity, creative expression, and quiet time.

Guess which things are the first to fall by the wayside when the schedule gets out of whack?

Yeah, that needs to change.  This week, while my workload has been lighter than usual, I have had the time to ensure a daily yoga practice, to carve out an hour for writing time each evening after dinner, and the effects on my well-being have been tremendous.  In just a couple days though, we will jump back into our morning school time, and I will get much busier with work again.  Then, the week after that, all of our outside-the-house activities return to our schedule, and if I am not careful, if I am not intentional about the way I spend my time, I will find the minutes gobbled up in ways that actually prevent us all from fully enjoying our days.  And time will continue right on shooting past us while we just keep on keeping on.

That's no way to live.

Rather than trying some radical change to our entire schedule and way of life, and then failing miserably in the grand tradition of New Year's Resolutions, I plan to start small.  For the past year, instead of coming up with a solution to the madness of my schedule, in which I am essentially running pell-mell from eight in the morning until nine at night, I have complained bitterly about how this tyrannical schedule has prevented me from practicing yoga as often as I like, and from writing during the hours when my brain is still fully operating.

So I shall start with the first part of the mornings.  That is the biggest area of time that is dictated by habit rather than by rhythm, and so that is where I will begin.  Yoga at 7:30 am, when I am already awake and generally just laying in bed or, worse, just sitting on the sofa with my nose in Twitter, will solve most of the problems of the entire day's schedule, I believe.  Most days, I wait until after lunchtime to try to practice yoga, and it is terribly difficult for it to get done properly by that point, especially since either the kids are too noisy for me to focus, or we are in a giant hurry to get to ballet, or I am rushing to get started on the work that my clients have been emailing to me all morning.

The kids usually rise at eight o'clock, and by that time I will be finished with the thirty-minute daily practice that I prefer.  While they then watch cartoons, I can drink coffee and wash my face, read the two or three blogs that I like to start my day with, and gather together the materials we will be using for the day's homeschool lessons.

And that is all for now.  One little change at a time, I think.  This one tiny tweak to the mornings will set the tone for the rest of the day for us all, thus allowing us to move easily into breakfast and our morning lessons, and then lunch.  When I feel confident in this one change, when the early mornings have settled into a rhythm, I intend to inject a little creativity into our now-predictable breakfast repertoire.  That, too, is a tiny change that I look forward to jumping into.

Picking resolutions that make us happy, that support our peace and the ease in our days, are resolutions worth keeping, I believe.  Are there any new rhythms you wish to add to your family's days?

Friday, December 30, 2011

Black Bean and Corn Chilaquiles

Does everyone love beans?  I mean, really, truly, love and adore them?  I get kind of excited about beans, you see, but I don't know if that should just be chalked up to my frugal, vegetarian upbringing - or the Hispanic majority in my mother's family - or if it is just another one of my quirks.

Roasted garbanzo beans make me giddy, and my favorite lunch of all time is nothing more than plain beans and brown rice, drizzled with olive oil and a little sprinkling of coarse sea salt.  Given my druthers, I'd choose that simple meal over almost anything else at least 95% of the time.

Unless Golden Bowl is one of my choices.  Then all bets are off.

Have you heard of Rancho Gordo's 'A Year of Beans' subscription program?  It's completely out of our current price range, but it made me a little covetous.  Can you imagine?  Six pounds of incredible dried beans, delivered quarterly, along with a special treat and recipes?  Am I the only one (besides my mother, that is) that thinks this is the greatest idea in the world?

I bought a pound of fresh field peas from one of the wonderfully sardonic farmers at our local farmer's market a few summers back, and then I went back the next weekend for another.  And the weekend after that, too.  Fresh beans are a revelation.  It currently being the end of December though, I don't think I'll have any luck on that front for a while.

Plain old black beans found their way onto our dinner table tonight, old-fashioned, super-cheap, $0.99/pound, generic black beans.  I love them, too.  They may not be heirloom, organic, local, or special in any way, but they're the most affordable source of nutritious protein on the planet.  And with the tiniest bit of planning ahead, the convenience can't be beat either.

Often, at the beginning of the week, I will put a big pan of beans on to cook while I'm going about the usual business of our day.  A pound or two of beans will take a few hours of soaking, and another hour or so of cooking, but I have finally learned to then portion the cooked beans out into individual small canning jars and then pop them into the freezer so that I can pull them out one "can" at the time as needed for recipes.

They are much less expensive, lower in sodium, firmer-textured, and far more flavorful than the cans of beans available in the supermarket.  Easy peasy.

Chilaquiles are one of those recipes that I lean on for simple dinners.  It is rather a humble meal, but very tasty, and lots of fun to eat as a dip, scooped up with tortilla chips baked in the oven.  This recipe is one I found in a back issue of Vegetarian Times, and I've made it countless times over the past few years, but it is so satisfying, and so very easy.

Also, The Carnivore (much as I hate to admit this) is able to cook a quick bit of sausage or other carnivorous substance to throw on top of his portion when he is going through one of his I'll-die-if-I-don't-get-animal-protein-RIGHT-NOW moods.  {Silly man.}  Though it is nice to have recipes like this, ones that please the vegetarian, but can be customized in a pinch to make the resident meat eater happy.

And the chips don't hurt the situation much.  Have you ever taken corn tortillas, cut them into strips, tossed them with olive oil and salt, and then baked them in the oven for about 15 minutes?  Friends, it's kind of mind-blowing.  I recommend making about four times as many chips as you think you'll need.  They have the oddest habit of disappearing as fast as one can pull them out of the oven.


BLACK BEAN AND CORN CHILAQUILES (adapted from Vegetarian Times), serves 4 to 6

Note: You can buy small cans of chipotle chili peppers in adobo sauce in the Ethnic section of any major supermarket.  Freeze any leftover peppers in an ice cube tray, with a little bit of the sauce in each cube, and then pop out the cubes and put them in a freezer bag for future use.

  • One small onion, cut into 8 wedges
  • 2 lbs Roma tomatoes, halved
  • 3 large cloves garlic, peeled
  • 18 corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch wide strips
  • 3 to 4 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 chipotle chiles, with 1 Tbs adobo sauce
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed & drained; or 1/2 cup dried black beans, cooked
  • 2 cups corn kernels 
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups Mexican crumbling cheese, feta, or shredded Monterey Jack cheese (or whatever great melting cheese you happen to have around)
  • 1 Tbs lime juice
  • cilantro leaves, for garnish
  • Sour cream, for serving
  1. Place one small onion, cut into 8 wedges, the halved tomatoes, and the peeled garlic on a baking sheet, and cook in the oven at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.
  2. At the same time, toss tortilla strips with oil and salt and arrange in single layers on baking sheets.  Bake for about 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with more salt as needed.
  3. When roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic have cooled for a few minutes, put them in a food processor with the chipotles and adobo sauce, and about 1/2 tsp of salt.  Puree until smooth, and add more salt as needed.
  4. Spread thin layer of salsa in the bottom of a 1 1/2 quart baking dish.  Top with a single layer of baked tortilla strips, and then add black beans, corn, diced onion, and cheese.  Cover with more sauce, and bake 25 minutes, until bubbly.
  5. Drizzle with lime juice, sprinkle with a little minced cilantro, and serve hot, with leftover sauce and baked tortilla chips.  Top with sour cream.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Butternut Squash Puree

If left to my own devices, I would probably eat butternut squash at every meal.  I like it in soup (such a lovely color), I adore it baked, and, though I am the lone member of my household that feels this way, I think it is smashing when it is roasted in thin slices and laid atop a white pizza.  And, oh, have you ever had butternut squash ravioli covered in a cream sauce?

Good night.  So good, it's kind of ridiculous.

For unknown reasons, my fickle family is on an anti-butternut-squash bender right now, which attitude vexes me in myriad ways, but also allows for there to be more butternut squash for me.

I didn't want to share it anyway.

It wasn't always this way.  There was a time when we would get it from our CSA, and when the CSA season was over, from our local market.  At the time, The Boy Wonder would devour great heaping servings of it, straight from the oven, drizzled with a little olive oil and a tiny bit of salt.  I thought that (1) I must be a great parent since my child was so open to trying new things, and (2) that my child must be that special sort who would always eat his vegetables.

Methinks I might have been wrong on both accounts.  The new phase in the life of these heathen children is apparently one in which they will fight me tooth and nail on every single item I place on the kitchen table.  But I will not concede this point easily.  This fight is nowhere near over.

For now though, I alone eat butternut squash.  And I'm okay with that, as long as everyone tries a bite of everything.  Every night.  All weeping aside.

Last night, with leftover frittata to serve for dinner, I searched the fridge and freezer looking for a vegetable to serve alongside.  The only thing I could find was a tupperware full of cubed butternut squash in the freezer, and I came thisclose to calling The Carnivore and requesting a broccoli run on his way home from work, because honestly, pre-cubed and defrosted butternut squash does not lend well to many of the recipes I was running through in my mind.

Lately, given our current budgetary constraints, I have spent at least one week a month attempting to feed us from what we have on hand.  This small challenge has done well for us financially, allowing that particular week to be one in which I stop at the store only for milk and coffee (and sometimes - cough, cough - for tortilla chips).  This is one of those weeks, of course, and so far, so good, really.

We had Mozzarella-Stuffed Arancini tonight.  Tomorrow, we shall have Chilaquiles, and, as I mentioned, we enjoyed a frittata for two nights - once with roasted potatoes on the side, and once with the butternut squash puree pictured above.

Before giving in to the temptation of falling on the grocery store as backup yesterday, I did what I usually do in a time of menu ennui.  I reached for The Art of Simple Food, that fabulous Alice Waters book that would probably be my first recommendation to anyone wondering how to get started in the kitchen.  As is often the case, I found just what I needed last night: a suggestion for a winter squash puree.  There wasn't much to the little blurb in the book regarding this treatment.  Just an idea for baking the squash, pureeing it, and then serving it with butter or oil, and a little salt.  Simple, see.  The whole luscious cookbook is like that.  It is truly an essential part of my kitchen.  Also, it is beautiful, which never hurts.

Since I was starting with frozen cubed squash, baking it seemed a messy, time-consuming idea, so I poured the cubes into a metal colander, set it over a pan with an inch of water, turned it to boil, covered the whole thing with a lid, and steamed it for about 15 minutes, until the squash was so tender it nearly fell apart when I poked it with a fork.  

I dumped the whole lot of it into a food processor, added a couple pats of butter, a few pinches of salt and a couple grinds of black pepper, and then ran the processor until the squash was whipped and airy.  And it was divine.  Slightly vegetal in flavor, mellowed out and made a richer with butter, it was like mashed potatoes served in Wonderland.  Creamy, without the starchiness of potatoes, beautiful in color, and so very flavorful.  

Honestly, even the skeptical Carnivore ate more than I felt like sharing.  It was truly a thing of beauty.  I liked it just fine on its own, as an accompaniment to the frittata, and I may or may not have eaten two giant bowls full of it, but I have big plans for this recipe now.  

Remember that butternut squash ravioli I mentioned above?  My, my, my.  It would only take a few more minutes to roll out a few sheets of pasta dough, and to cut it into squares and put tiny spoonfuls of this filling in the middle, to lay another square on top, and to press them together into luscious little pillows.  Yes, I am certain that will be coming soon.


BUTTERNUT SQUASH PUREE (adapted from The Art of Simple Food), serves 4 as a side dish
  • 1 large or 2 small-ish butternut squash
  • Butter, approximately 2 Tbs
  • Salt & pepper, to taste
  1. Peel the squash, cut it in half, and scoop out and discard the seeds and stringy bits.  Cut into cubes, and steam, covered, for about 20 minutes, until very tender.  
  2. Or, alternately, leave on the peel, cut the squash in half, scoop out and discard the seeds and stringy bits.  Place cut side down on an oiled baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, or until very tender.  Cool slightly, and then scoop the flesh from the peel.
  3. Put steamed cubes (or baked flesh) into the bowl of a food processor, add a pinch or two of salt and a few grinds of black pepper, along with one tablespoon of unsalted butter, and puree until whipped and airy.
  4. Taste, and add more butter and salt as needed.
  5. Serve hot, or use as filling in ravioli.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Eat well. Be swell.

The week between Christmas and New Year's is such a sacred time.  Not in any sort of holy sense, of course, because really, the twelve days of Christmas should begin on December 14 and culminate on December 25, shouldn't they?  There is absolutely no need to hear people on social media declaring this the fourth day of Christmas.

Christmas is over.  I thought we were all in agreement on that point.

I have declared this a homeschool holiday week, freeing up so much time in my day that I have been able to appease my clients before dinnertime, squeeze in some bliss with my yoga mat before lunchtime, and find more time with my camera, and with words, throughout these slower-paced days.

The extra time to linger on the sofa with a cup of coffee (or four) in the morning infuses the rest of the day with a sense of time stretching out before us.  And these children that we are raising take their cues from us, don't they?  When the adults are moving too quickly, rushing to tick items from the to-do list, the kids feel it.  In the absolute worst of ways.  Unless I force myself to draw back a little, to find a way to calm rising emotions, behaviors spiral out of control, and we all end up edgy and uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I played music all afternoon, the sounds of Sarah McLachlan's soft, moody voice giving the house a restful vibe that carried over into a leisurely evening.  Oh, to remember these little touches on the bad days.  To know that the smallest turn of my own attention can bring everyone back to a place of ease.  Even Princess Hazelnut was able to hone in on this tiny tactic this morning when she picked up on my own edginess and said, "Mama, maybe you should do yoga."

She was right.  I found my breath slowing and deepening as I unrolled my mat.  We anchor each other, this little family of mine.

Inhale.  Exhale.

And so the day moved.  Slowly.  Purposefully.  With time to join an old friend for lunch, to catch up on lives and spouses and mutual friends and jobs and stories of where we now live, time to watch him interact so easily with my own children.  It is one of the greatest and yet the strangest of feelings to join our old lives with our current ones, to see these friends from different phases of our youth in the same space of time in which we are now parents.  The Boy Wonder picks my brain for days after time spent with my old friends, his seven years on this planet not quite enough to properly comprehend relationships that span decades, despite a thousand miles or more of geographic distance.

That is, I think, one of the great lessons we can share with our children.  That we are all woven together with those whom we have befriended throughout our lives.  That time and space do not sever these connections.

And so we drove slowly home, going ever-so-slightly out of our way to travel down my favorite road in town, and I returned back to my desk, to see what I could get done while the kids played happily outside.  The Carnivore came home early, looking askance at me as he casually deposited a book into my hand on his way through my office.

A cookbook.  One that I had been coveting since months before it's autumn release.  One that I had been just maybe the tiniest bit grumpy to not find under the tree earlier this week.

Somehow, knowing that The Carnivore stopped by the author's house today to get it signed make it just that much more magical, I think.  Yes, this is a sacred week.

Eat well.  Be swell.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Early Winter Daybook: December 27

Time begins to slow down now.  The busyness of Christmas is over, the shortest day of the year is behind us, and the weather here will turn mostly cold for the next four weeks or so.  It is almost a shock to the system to realize my present-wrapping, stocking-filling, gift-baking, activity-planning detailed to-do list is no longer in control of my days.

Today, as The Carnivore returned to work early in the morning (after taking - ahem - one whole day off), I looked with disgust at the Christmas Tree from Hell, the one which dropped copious amounts of needles every day, and whose lower branches had begun to droop dismally towards the floor.  I tried to ignore it at first.  I took a shower, practiced yoga, followed up on some loose ends with a few clients, all the while thinking what a chore it would be to put Christmas away.  

But then it wasn't.  A chore, I mean.  Christmas cards were unceremoniously tossed into the recycling bin, garlands and lights were wound back up, ornaments were packed carefully away, my childhood folk art creche was swept off the mantle and back into it's bag, and the tree was dragged out the door and tossed off the porch with zero fanfare, to be dragged into the woods on a less wet afternoon.  It took longer to sweep the pine needles off the floor than it did to put Christmas back into a box for next year.

And just like that, I reclaimed this corner of my living room.  The side table was brought back from its hallway exile, the loveseat slid back over into its rightful place, and we were ready for a new month, a new season in our family's rhythm.

It reminded me of the Christmas morning some 15 or so years ago, when I arrived late to my mother's house, only to find two of my brothers heading out the door with the already-bare Christmas tree balanced between them.  "It's not even lunchtime yet," I cried.  "Christmas was over a few hours ago," my mother answered flatly, looking up from her seed catalogs and her springtime planning list only long enough to hand me a highlighter so that I could circle the pepper plants I wanted her to grow.

January is just around the corner, and it is one of the only months of the year in which we do not have well-defined traditions to follow.  There are no immediate family birthdays, or large holidays, no vacations.  It is special that way.  As the weather turns colder, the children will spend less time outside in the afternoons.  The bikes will be put away.  The sandbox toys will be tossed into a pile on the porch.

We will hunker down in our own little way.  The curtains which are left open for ten months of the year will be closed against the chill, providing a small extra layer of insulation against the cold that seeps through our antique extra-thin windows.  I will leave a trail of teacups behind me on every flat surface in the house as I try to warm myself with hot herbal teas.  The children will snuggle together on the sofa, The Boy Wonder reading books about dragons as fast as he can get his hands on them, Princess Hazelnut sticking her own nose into books, trying her best to follow the lead of her brother.  And her mother.  And her father.  Books are everywhere in our house, in our lives, in our hearts.

So much time is spent gearing up for the holiday season.  I plan to spend twice as much time winding back down.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

French Toast Casserole

Oh, friends.  I think I might finally be getting the hang of this whole Christmas thing.  And while I'm sure no one will be very impressed by this - I am getting dangerously close to 40, after all, and this is my eighth Christmas as a parent - it is a monumental feat, nonetheless.  See, I was raised by a Christmas heretic, so it's a wonder I can handle this holiday at all, much less without medication, and truth be told, I'm just not terribly good at traditions, at being fully present for entire holiday seasons, or at spending money unnecessarily.  Which character faults pretty much preclude any sort of Yuletide success.

But I persevered, I'm telling you.  For the sake of the kids (there are two of them now).

Our Christmas tree still looks a little bit like Charlie Brown decorated it, and even though I'll probably be sent straight to hell for saying it, I remain steadfastly in the Christmas-crafts-are-stupid-wastes-of-my-time camp, so, well, there is clearly some room for improvement here.


I actually did do a few things right this year.  Using a warped piece of foam board for a backing, a stack of sticky notes (so that I could change the activities to suit our schedule), and an old classroom bulletin board calendar set, I created an advent calendar of Christmas activities following the examples of much more talented ladies on Pinterest (mine looks NOTHING like the one in the picture on the link).  The kids loved it.  I may have gotten even more of it out it than they did though, because the daily attention to this seemingly silly idea kept me fully aware of the Christmas season.  Every single day - even if only to take a minute to listen to a Christmas song or to sip a cup of cocoa.  It was, I have to admit, rather lovely.


There were other tiny achievements as well.  Candies and baked goods were made for family members, sugar cookies were baked for Santa (using dinosaur cookie cutters and pink icing - hey, we're homeschoolers, what do you expect?), and we made a Christmas budget and stayed well within it.

I screwed up more than I got right, of course.  The number of times I played the I'm-calling-Santa card and made Princess Hazelnut cry and scream with fear is more than a little embarrassing, and, like I do every year, I ran out of sugar before I finished all my baking.  I still couldn't get it together to send out Christmas cards.  And then there was the matter of my sugar cookies tasting truly crappy after an entire day devoted to baking and decorating of said craptastic treats.

But let's not get hung up on the details, mm-kay?

When it was all said and done, this morning was my sort of perfect Christmas.  We had a simple kind of celebration, with stockings for the kids, a very small number of well-chosen presents per person, no plans to leave the house, and lots of time to sit around in our pajamas and play with new toys, watch Christmas movies, and just be together.

Our big meal for the day was a late breakfast of Creamy, Dreamy Cheddar Grits (you would be shocked to hear how often we eat this particular recipe) and French Toast Casserole.  God bless the French Toast Casserole, right?  I had zero intention of standing at the stove this morning, flipping individual slices of toast in the skillet and missing out on the present-opening fun, and I was so grateful when I made this recipe a few weeks ago and the whole family enjoyed it.

My first attempt at french toast casserole was a few months prior, and it was a dud.  A soggy, gooey, tasteless dud.  The concept was appealing though, and I kept running across new recipes and hearing others rave about their favorite versions, so it stayed at the front of my mind for recipes to be on the lookout for.

This particular one - the one I made a few weeks ago, and that I subsequently baked again this morning - turned out just the way I wanted, crispy on top, eggy on the bottom, and soggy in the middle.  Made with a dense cranberry-walnut bread, the bread cubes held their shape nicely, and baking it in a shallow dish allowed for more surface area to crisp up from the cinnamon-sugar topping.  The wider dish also allowed for more control over how much of the casserole would get soggy, and the caramelization from the cinnamon sugar gave such a glorious toothsome texture to the top.

I kind of love it, you see, and The Boy Wonder, who eats like a bird, ended up devouring two giant platefuls.  Such a perfect recipe, the sort of thing that can make a weekend morning feel special, the kind of special treat that goes hand in hand with lazy, happy holidays.

Oh, it isn't healthy.  Not at all.  So don't worry about that yet.  December is a time of excess, a month in which sugar for breakfast is perfectly acceptable, and let's face it, nothing of any consequence is going to get done for the next week anyway.  Let's keep the intemperance going for now.  We can reconvene here in January, and talk then about cleanses, and anti-inflammatory diets, and the swearing off of processed foods.  Until then, my friends, let the decadence continue.


FRENCH TOAST CASSEROLE, adapted from (serves 6)

Use the densest bread you can find.  Most supermarket delis carry a breakfast bread, like cranberry-walnut, that will work wonderfully.  I made mine in my bread machine, and left it out overnight to get stale and crusty.  Stale is good in this case, and will help the bread cubes to hold together firmly.

  • 5 cups bread cubes (approximately 1 to 2-inches square), from a very dense breakfast bread
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup sugar (brown, white, or raw), divided
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon

  1. Lightly butter an 8x10 (or slightly larger) casserole dish, and pour bread cubes into pan.  Go ahead and let the bread cubes sit unevenly in the pan.  There is no need to press them down and make them behave.
  2. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, milk, 2 Tablespoons of the sugar, salt and vanilla.  
  3. Pour egg mixture over bread, attempting to saturate most of the pieces of bread.
  4. Cut the butter into tiny pieces and dot them over the top of the casserole.  
  5. In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 2 Tablespoons of sugar with the cinnamon, and sprinkle over the top of the casserole.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes, until top is golden.
  7. Serve warm, topped with maple syrup.