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DESIGN AND COOKING

A Christmas Beginning

Start the day with a festive table and an easy-to-prepare family meal.

Deb Nicoletti at the buffet she adorned with large soup cans filled with fresh greenery.
Deb Nicoletti at the buffet she adorned with large soup cans filled with fresh greenery. (Photo / Pam Berry)
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Easy Christmas Breakfasts

A special day should start with a special breakfast. It's a Christmas tradition for the families of Marcy Morse and Deb Nicoletti, twin sisters who co-own Pettinelli & Bean (pettinelliandbean.com), a Wellesley company that specializes in tabletop products. But special doesn't have to mean complicated. The idea is to create a time for togetherness with family and, for Morse and Nicoletti, neighbors, before the frenetic pace of the day begins.

''So often we think creating a festive ambience is an art that requires serious design expertise,'' says Morse. ''But it really can be made so simple just by using colorful decorations and table settings.''

It's fun for kids to find the breakfast table decorated with all kinds of surprises, but setting it up should be fun for the adults – and easy.

Morse and Nicoletti suggest selecting a color scheme; they've set their holiday table here using place mats and napkins from their own "wish hope give & receive" collection, along with white-china dinner plates and red bread plates with an embossed pattern. For the center of the table, they used giant pillar candles in a peppermint-stripe pattern and miniature rosemary trees that they bought at a garden center. "The rosemary added a great fragrance to the room," says Morse.

Freshly clipped greenery from the backyard adorn the breakfast buffet. "You don't have to fuss," says Morse. "Fresh greens look good even if they're messy and natural."

Their Christmas tradition begins even before breakfast. "On Christmas morning, our kids find a special gift of new pajamas at the foot of their bed," says Morse. "They know not to come down until they are decked out in their new flannel." When they arrive at the table, they find a box tied with ribbon at their places. Inside is a player's piece from a family board game. "Having a wrapped box at each setting is a fun surprise," says Nicoletti. "Everyone opens their box and finds a piece to a board game we have, like Scrabble or Sorry. When the late-afternoon or early evening lull hits, we bring out the games and play."

A candy treat – this year, white marshmallow snowmen dipped in white chocolate with chocolate-chip buttons and eyes – is also part of each place setting.

For the menu, they select breakfast items that they can start making ahead of time, and finishing some of them becomes a family activity. The children cut and decorate dough made the night before for easy-to-prepare cinnamon rolls. Huge cups of hot chocolate are garnished with Popsicle-stick stirrers that the children decorate with peppermints "glued" in place with royal icing. For the main course, a Christmas quiche can be assembled the night before and baked in the morning. And ambrosia is an easy do-ahead dish, or it can be made at the last minute, with the children adding whipped cream and vanilla yogurt to a mixture of assorted fruit and other goodies. "We always sprinkle ours with coconut," says Morse.

"Letting your children take part in these morning holiday rituals helps to connect the family," says Nicoletti. "Having them participate, and preparing your table with care and thought, has a surprisingly calming effect on everyone."

SAVORY BREAD PUDDING
SERVES 10 TO 12

The beauty of this is that you must make it the night before in order for it to come out well. You can bake it in the morning while everyone is opening gifts.

Butter (for the dish)
7 slices white toasting bread, crusts removed
8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated
6 eggs
3 cups whole milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
10 to 12 thin slices Canadian bacon

Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. In a large bowl, tear the bread into bite-size pieces with your hands. Add the cheese and toss well. Spread the mixture evenly in the baking dish.

In another large bowl, beat the eggs, add the milk, and beat well. Add salt and pepper. Pour the egg mixture over the bread and cheese and top with the bacon. Cover with foil and refrigerate for at least 5 hours or as long as overnight.

Set the oven at 350 degrees. Remove the foil from the bread pudding. Bake the mixture for 45 to 55 minutes or until the eggs are just firm. Let the pudding settle for a few minutes. Cut it into squares and serve at once.

GIGI'S CINNAMON ROLLS
MAKES ABOUT 72 SMALL ROLLS

This recipe is from Marcy Morse and Deb Nicoletti's grandmother, who used to make melt-in-your-mouth horn-shaped pastries. The tiny size is perfect for children. You can make the dough the night before and let the kids cut and shape the rolls on Christmas morning, or you can bake the rolls the day before and warm them up for breakfast.

3 envelopes dry yeast
1/4 cup whole milk, heated to lukewarm
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 pint sour cream
4 cups flour
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted and cooled to lukewarm
Extra flour (for sprinkling)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted (for brushing)
1/2 cup granulated sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (for sprinkling)

Grease 2 baking sheets and set them aside. In a bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the milk and stir to dissolve.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a wooden spoon, then add the 1 cup of sugar, sour cream, yeast mixture, 2 cups of flour, and the 1 cup of melted butter. When the mixture comes together – it will be very soft – sprinkle a clean countertop with flour and turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Knead in the remaining 2 cups of flour. The dough should be smooth and elastic. If you are making the dough ahead of time, place it in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Bring the dough to room temperature before handling again.

Set the dough on a floured surface and pull off golf-ball-size pieces. Roll each into a small ball. Use a rolling pin, roll each ball out to a disk about 4 inches in diameter. With a knife, cut 3 or 4 triangles from each round. Brush the pastry with melted butter and sprinkle it with the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Beginning at the wide end, loosely roll one of the triangles into a horn shape. Repeat with the remaining balls of dough.

Set the rolls 1 inch apart on the baking sheets. For puffier rolls, let them rest for about one hour in a cool oven before baking. Brush rolls with melted butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon sugar, then bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until they are golden brown and firm to the touch.

Ask the Cooks: Pies on Ice

I would like to bake and freeze pies for the holidays. Are there any tricks so that the pies will taste ''just baked''? SANDI MOCCALDI /// Middleborough

Some pies are perfectly suited to being assembled and frozen, then thawed and baked later. Favorites such as apple and pecan pies, for example, do quite well, but that seasonal headliner, pumpkin, does not. The delicate custard-based filling will break down during the freezing, and you'll end up with pumpkin-flavored cottage cheese. (Those store-bought frozen pumpkin pies are loaded with emulsifiers and stabilizers that keep them solid.)

Prepare your favorite pie-dough recipe as usual, but brush a little egg white on the surface of the bottom crust to prevent it from getting soggy when the pie is partially thawed and baked. Fill as usual, top with a second crust, if called for, and wrap the pie, pan and all, in several layers of plastic wrap and a final layer of aluminum foil; freeze.

If you use a metal pan, your pie can go directly from freezer to hot oven. However, such an extreme temperature change will cause a glass pie dish to shatter, so it should sit on the kitchen counter for at least 20 minutes before baking. You can also let your pie defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator. Either way, for a uniform golden color, brush the top crust with a little egg white before baking. Keep in mind that the chilled filling will slow down the baking process. It may be necessary to lower the oven temperature by about 50 degrees for the heat to penetrate to the center without burning the exterior. For most pies, start the oven at 375 to 425 degrees and bake for 15 minutes, then lower the setting.

Answer by Peter J. Kelly, a chef-instructor at Johnson & Wales University.

Jim Montalto is a freelance writer. He can be reached at j.monta@gmail.com.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Easy Christmas Breakfasts
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