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A mess-free morning: Make-ahead breakfasts families can enjoy

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One look at the mess in the kitchen and that special-day meal the children made for you can lose its appeal.

We all remember the wonder of being old enough to cook for Mom and Dad.

As parents, we want to encourage the same excitement in our little darlings — only without the mess.

A make-ahead breakfast lets you manage the chaos in the kitchen while allowing your children to take ownership of a piping hot meal and brightening everyone's day.

Overnight French toast couldn't be easier to make and is perfect for little helpers. Soak the bread overnight, leaving space between the slices for it to puff up, and bake in the morning.

The two baked egg dishes are a bit more complicated. One cradles the eggs in a cheese sauce and is elegant enough to serve for dinner — just add steamed vegetables.

The other, from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything: The Basics" (Wiley, $35), uses caramelized onions and cheese as the base for the eggs.

Bittman says any vegetable works as a bed for the eggs, including roasted or mashed potatoes, squash, chopped asparagus or grated carrots. Just be sure the vegetables are cooked tender. Bittman suggests cooking the onions until soft and tender but not browned, but allowing them to brown a bit will only deepen the caramelized flavor. Also, don't cover the egg yolks with cheese or cheese sauce, so you can gauge when they're done. The eggs should come out of the oven while the yolks are still a little jiggly; otherwise, the yolk will be dry and rubbery.

The baked egg tarts are scrumptious, but also a lot of work. Our recipe tester offers several suggestions to ease preparation.

Pillsbury's signature crescent roll dough is easier to mold into oiled cupcake pans than flattened bread slices. Bake the crescent roll crust alone for about 12 minutes, let cool, then fill and bake again according to recipe directions.

Taco-size tortillas are another option. Heat them on both sides in a frying pan with olive oil, then mold into oversize muffin pans. Bake empty about 12 minutes, cool, fill and bake according to directions.

The recipe calls for cherry tomatoes, but grape tomatoes are a bit more manageable. Cut in half, squeeze out a little of the juice and place cut side down on the tart filling.


Serves: 4

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

1 teaspoon dried mustard

2 cups milk

1¼ cups shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese

2 cups diced, cooked chicken or other cooked meat

4 eggs

Nonstick cooking spray

1 pound asparagus, steamed

Place medium cast-iron skillet over medium heat and melt the 2 tablespoons butter.

Stir in flour and mustard and cook until bubbly. Gradually stir in the milk and cook, stirring constantly, until thick and smooth. Stir in cheese until it is melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste, adding salt and pepper and nutmeg as needed. Stir in chicken and remove from heat. Make four indentations in the sauce and break an egg in each. Lightly spray each egg with nonstick cooking spray. Bake uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes in a 375-degree oven. Serve with steamed asparagus.


Serves: 4

Olive oil spray for oiling

16 slices white bread

1/2 cup butter, melted

5 ounces smoked bacon, diced

3 eggs

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

8 vine cherry tomatoes

Spray muffin tins lightly with oil. Cut the crusts off the bread and discard. Flatten each bread slice with a rolling pin. Brush each slice with the melted butter and place one slice in each of eight muffin tins. Place the remaining eight slices diagonally in each of the eight tins. Carefully press the bread slices into the muffin tins to form the base. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes until crisp and golden. Alternately, mold Pillsbury's crescent rolls or whole-wheat tortillas heated in a frying pan with oil into the tins and bake 12 minutes. Cool before filling.

Meanwhile, heat a dry frying pan until hot, add the bacon and cook for two to three minutes until crisp and golden. Divide the bacon among the muffin tins. Beat together the eggs, cream, cheese and salt and pepper to taste in a bowl. Spoon into the muffin tins and top each with a cherry tomato or one or two grape tomatoes. Bake for 15 minutes or until set.

Another idea: Line the muffin tins with partially cooked bacon or ham slices from the deli. Crack an egg in the base, brush the top with butter and bake at 350 degrees or until the egg is set and the white opaque, about 15 to 20 minutes.

— adapted from "365 Ways to Cook: Delicious Variations on Favorite Foods" (Firefly Books, $19.95)


Serves: 8

2 tablespoons butter

8 slices raisin bread from a 1-pound loaf, sliced 1-inch thick

4 eggs

4 egg whites

11/2 cups milk

¼ cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Butter shallow baking pan and arrange the bread in a single layer. Beat together the eggs, egg whites, milk, sugar, cinnamon, syrup, vanilla and salt in a large bowl. Pour mixture over bread. Turn slices to coat. Cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake the French toast for 20 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Turn the bread and continue baking until golden, about four minutes longer. Transfer to a warm plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Testers note: Eggnog makes amazing overnight French toast. Add two whole eggs, lightly beaten, to 2 cups of eggnog. Pour over thick slices of bread. Turn bread to coat. Bake in the morning, as instructed above.

— "Let's Get Together," by DeeDee Stovel and Pam Wakefield (Storey Publishing, $14.95)


Serves: 4 to 8

4 tablespoons (half stick) butter

4 onions (about a half pound) sliced

1 cup bread crumbs, preferably fresh

2 cups grated Gruyere, fontina or other melting cheese

8 eggs

Salt and ground black pepper

Toasted bread or English muffin for serving

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and tender but not browned, at least 15 minutes.

Spread the onions over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle half the bread crumbs over the onions, then sprinkle on half the cheese. Use the back of a spoon to make eight nests in the mixture. Crack an egg into each indentation. Top with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and the remaining bread crumbs and cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the egg whites opaque. The eggs should be a little more jiggly than you want them because they'll continue cooking after you take them out of the oven.

Serve with toast.

— "How to Cook Everything: The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food, With 1,000 Photos," by Mark Bittman (Wiley, $35)

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