Christmas mornings began with homemade cinnamon rolls and presents and ended with a Southern brunch that seemed to stretch for miles.
Fried chicken and livers. Cheese grits spiked with Tabasco. Homemade biscuits and gravy. Cinnamon biscuits (because by then it had been a few hours since the cinnamon rolls). A sausage casserole that was more like a soufflé. Scrambled eggs. I’m pretty sure there was also bacon. A glass pitcher filled with fresh-squeezed orange juice, because one of Mom’s relatives always sent us oranges from Florida as a gift.
Mom would always say that her biscuits didn’t rise enough, or there would be something that she didn’t find right about the gravy, but none of this was true. Everything was always perfect, and it was always far too much.
I remember having this plate in front of me, the familiar Christmas tree design covered with a puddle of peppery gravy and yellowy grits starting to harden, and the rest of it, piled up and reaching to the edge of the plate. I did this every Christmas — me, the one who dislikes brunch so.
The abundance of our family Christmas brunch was by far the best part of the holiday. Better than the biggest Barbie dream house or chemistry set, or new stereo, even. We weren’t a large family. Save for our annual summer vacation to Port Aransas, we didn’t do many things together. We were four individuals who were more autonomous than not, with hobbies and interests not always shared.
But in the lull after the packages had been opened and the paper had been tossed out and before the realization set in that the holiday had peaked, we would come together for brunch, and for that brief time, we felt like a family.
We’d sit at our usual places at the round table covered with a thick red felt cloth and fat twists of fringe and we’d laugh about I don’t remember what, but we always were so happy and we’d pass around the basket of biscuits until they were all gone.
Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press). Read her blog (www.cowgirlchef.com), and follow her on Twitter (@cowgirlchef) and Instagram (cowgirlchef).
Makes 1 (10 1/2 -inch) cake/8 to 10 servings
In Italy, it’s not that unusual to have cakes like this one for breakfast. I loved this one so much that I asked for the recipe from the hotel, and have been making it ever since. It’s light and perfect for the citrus season.
Butter for greasing the pan
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup finely grated carrots (about 2 medium ones)
3 large eggs
1 lemon, juiced (about 1/3 cup) and zested
1 orange, juiced (about 1/3 cup) and zested
2 3/4 cups cake flour
1/3 cup potato flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Powdered sugar, for dusting the cooled cake
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and line a (10 1/2-inch) springform pan with parchment paper. Generously butter the parchment paper and the sides of the pan. Wrap the bottom with foil in case of leakage and place the pan on a cookie sheet.
2. In a bowl, mix together the oil, sugar, vanilla and grated carrot.
3. Add the eggs, juice and zest of lemon, and juice and zest of orange, and mix until the batter is a gorgeous light yellow.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, potato flour, baking powder, and salt. Add this to the batter, gently mix until blended, then pour into the prepared springform pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool for 15 to 20 minutes in the pan, then carefully remove the cake and let it continue cooling on a wire rack. Dust with powdered sugar right before serving.
From the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento, Italy
Sweet potato, leek and spinach frittata
Makes 6 servings
The easiest of all things you could make for brunch, and one that’ll keep for a day or two in case there are leftovers.
1 large sweet potato
Sea salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 ounces baby spinach, roughly chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Peel the sweet potato and chop it into 1-inch cubes. Toss onto a large baking sheet with sea salt and pepper to taste and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Bake until lightly browned, about 30 to 40 minutes, turning once.
Save time: Roast the sweet potatoes in advance and keep in the fridge until you’re ready to make the frittata.
3. Trim the dark green ends of the leeks. Split the leeks down the middle and rinse any remaining sand out of the layers. Thinly slice and put in a skillet with the other 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Salt and pepper the leeks. Cook until they soften, about 15 minutes or so. Set these aside.
Save time: You may also want to cook these in advance and keep in the fridge until you’re ready to assemble.
4. Put the chopped baby spinach in the skillet along with the leeks and cook for a minute or two, just until it starts to wilt.
5. Add the sweet potatoes to the skillet. Beat the eggs and pour them over the vegetables, letting them cook until they begin to set around the edges.
6. Add the Parmesan cheese on top. Slide the skillet into the oven and let the frittata bake until the eggs cook all the way through and the frittata puffs, for about 10 minutes. Let cool slightly before slicing and serving.
Pumpkin pecan pancakes
Makes 6 to 8 servings
If you’re lucky enough to have leftover pie, you can have that for breakfast, but if not, these pancakes are a mashup of the flavors of the season’s two best pies.
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup roughly chopped pecans
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/2 to 2 cups whole milk (as needed to thin the batter)
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for greasing the skillet
1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, pecans, baking powder, salt, spices, and sugar.
2. In another bowl, mix the pumpkin puree, milk, eggs, and melted butter. Pour this into the dry mixture, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. You don’t want to overmix.
3. Add about 1 tablespoon of butter to a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter melts and the skillet is sizzling, add pancake batter (I use a 1/2-cup measure, which makes pretty big ones), cooking the first side until bubbles appear, then flipping over to continue cooking on the second side until light brown. Serve immediately with maple syrup.
Two-bite cinnamon rolls
Makes about 80
This recipe isn’t that big, but it makes a ton of tiny cinnamon rolls — which, like doughnut holes, can be eaten by the handful. Sort of.
1 cup whole milk
1 stick/ 1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 eggs, at room temperature
4 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 stick/ 1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Warm the milk, butter, and sugar in a small saucepan over low heat. Pour into a mixer bowl fitted with a dough hook and let this cool to lukewarm (you should be able to touch it without burning your finger).
2. Sprinkle the yeast over the milk mixture. It’ll take about 5 minutes to get foamy.
3. Beat the eggs and add to the bowl. Add the flour and salt. Mix until the dough is shiny, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl that’s greased with butter and cover with plastic wrap. Place in warm spot and let rise for 1 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
4. Punch down the dough and cut it in half. Roll out half of the dough into a rectangle of about 16 inches by 20 inches.
5. Mix the filling together and spread half of the filling evenly over the dough, reserving the other half.
6. Slice the dough in half lengthwise, so you have two rectangles, which will soon become two logs. Roll the first piece toward you as tight as you can. Using a piece of dental floss, slice the log into 1-inch pieces and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment. Leave about 1/2 inch between each one, because they’ll rise and spread a little more. Repeat with the other rectangle of dough and the rest of the filling.
Note: I got all of these from the first log on one large baking sheet. I used a second baking sheet for the other half of the dough.
Brush the cinnamon rolls with melted butter, then let them rise for 30 minutes.
7. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
8. Bake the pans of cinnamon rolls until brown, about 15 minutes.
9. Make the glaze while they’re baking. Whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. Drizzle on top of the warm cinnamon rolls.