Archive for January, 2012

Brunch Staples: Challah French Toast

When one of my (many) second cousins was engaged back in 2001, her aunts enlisted the extended family in a cookbook project. They asked each of us to contribute our favorite recipes as an engagement gift to the happy couple, and then emailed the final document to everyone. Several of the recipes are old family classics, so I printed and bound it to keep with my other cookbooks.

A number of the newer recipes have become favorites in our own home, including this one contributed by someone who is not related to me (but in my family, that is not a disqualifier), and clearly knows her way around a brunch table. I love that I can make it the night before. I’ve also made it up to the point of chilling, then frozen it for weeks, thawed it in the fridge for a day and cooked it in the morning. The ideal make-ahead dish.


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Challah French Toast Casserole (serves 8)


1 loaf of challah

8oz. reduced-fat cream cheese

8 large eggs (egg substitute works well, too)

1.5C 2%milk (confession—I usually use skim)

2/3C half-and-half

½ C maple syrup (don’t skimp!), plus more for serving

½ t Vanilla extract


  1. Coat a rectangular 11×7 baking dish with cooking spray or similar.
  2. Cut off top of challah crust and slice into 1-inch cubes. Lay cubes in pan.
  3. Mix all other ingredients in a blender. Pour evenly over mixture in dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
  4. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake 50 minutes, covering when it starts to brown.
  5. Sprinkle with powdered sugar (optional) and serve with additional maple syrup on the side.   

If you serve this with a number of other items buffet-style, it’ll feed a lot more people. It naturally slices into 8 servings, but those pieces are really big and a lot of your guests will cut them in half.

I usually bake this with the Santa Fe Egg Bake, and add a fruit salad to the table.  If you do the same, bake them both at 350 for one hour, but check them at 50 minutes and understand you may need to adjust the time. That is fine because each one will stay very warm when covered. Actually, the egg bake needs time to cool regardless.

Do you have a favorite brunch staple?


Homogeny and Harmony at the Family Table

About a year ago, I realized that, through shear inertia, my family had fallen into a familiar rut—one meal for us, another, significantly less colorful, meal for the children. We had a rotating menu of about 5 main course items for the kids (ages 7 and 4), most of which were some form of yellow or beige, served with peas or carrots and fruit. Meanwhile my husband and I ate a variety of dishes. We looked at the situation and decided to make a change: everyone eats the same meal.

First, we set up the ground rules during their “last supper” of regular kids meals. “Tomorrow, y’all are going to eat the same foods we eat. You will eat enough to make sure you are not hungry before breakfast. If you do not eat enough, you will go to bed hungry. Do you understand?” They nodded, but we suspected it was not going to be that easy the next day.

To kick off our new set of dinner rules, I made tilapia. There were protests, demands for mac and cheese, crying…you can imagine it, I’m sure. After ketchup was placed on their plates, the kids agreed to take a bite. Then 8 bites. Then the vegetables. Success!

The next few days were hit and miss. If I made a straight protein or pasta dish, they’d eat it with few complaints. Casseroles were a disaster. They do not want their foods—even foods they like plain—mixed together. At times, we’d compromise. If I’d made something they probably didn’t like or wouldn’t like, I would let it go at 5 bites and let them each make a peanut-butter sandwich. If it was a meal I knew was good and that they would be likely to eat—I’d call them out for being fussy and we’d refuse to let them eat anything else until they’d eaten their serving. If they asked for other food after that, they could have fruits, vegetables or yogurt only, or more of the meal on the table.

I knew it was working. The best evidence was when I put a casserole on the table and my son started wailing that he wouldn’t eat it. My daughter calmly told him “you know you have to eat enough so you are not hungry tonight” and he stopped crying and ate it. She’ll also tell him, as needed, “you have to try something a lot of times before you know you like it” and “this is a grown-up food—you will like it better when you are older.” Now, my very particular son will try almost anything once a day (though wailing and protests are still common first instincts for him).

This year, at Thanksgiving, we had another challenge. We had several kids coming who did not live under our roof and did not have the same rules. If they didn’t eat their dinner, my kids might not want to either. So, I set up a challenge for the kids table (with permission from their parents): For every bite of a new food, they would earn 5 minutes of movie time after the meal for the whole table. Some of the kids took to it with gusto, and only one kid decided to ride the coattails of the others. But best of all, my kids didn’t complain or ask to eat something else. Second best, the adults had a quiet hour to talk while the kids watched a movie.

Copyright © 2012 Seasons Eatery & Pub

That was the goal for 2011. In 2012, I’m going to put more energy towards harmony at the family meal. We’ll be more structured on the flow of the meal: kids set the table, we all say our prayer, we eat together, everyone clears the table. My kids know they will be excused early for talking inappropriately, excessive tattling, or generally annoying behavior (the boy likes to burp, jive and wail), which has increased the peace considerably. And, I’m hoping a more structured flow will make dinners together calmer and happier. I’ll have to provide an update in 2013!

What changes are you putting in place at your family table, and what lessons can you share?

Our Foodie Best of 2011

My family has discovered a number of new foods, eateries and cooking accessories in 2011, some of which were great and some were total busts. The list below has the top five highlights of the year in Cook a Little, as nominated by the four member of our little tribe of foodies.

The Spitfire’s best store-bought food: Skippy Natural Peanut Butter with Honey. With a daily intake of peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches comes increased mess and expense from the honey side of the bread. This peanut butter, which we buy in bulk, cuts the prep time in half, eliminates the need for added honey, has no HFCS, and taste wonderful. My mother-in-law is the latest convert to this brand, after trying it at our house several times. It does have more sugar than regular peanut butter, though, because of the honey: 5g per serving.

The Energizer Bunny’s Favorite new toy: Sassafras ice cream maker. When he asked for an ice cream maker for his birthday, I gave a tentative OK. Most of the ones I have seen make more of the treat than I’d care to have in the house. This model makes about a pint and is extremely simple to use. And, it doesn’t take up much room in the freezer. We made a batch of Vanilla ice cream last night that is better than even Amy’s serves, in my opinion.

The Mama’s favorite new toy: Cuisinart immersion blender. I make a smoothie for breakfast almost every morning, and this “stick” blender is easier to clean, quieter and faster than my traditional blender. It’s also much better for blending soups, for the added reason that I don’t have to wait for the soup to cool or deal with hot, spraying soup.

The Mama’s favorite new store-bought food: Amazing Meal Amazing Grass. For the aforementioned smoothies. I get a serving of veggies in without the extra bulk (and pulp).

The Papa’s favorite new bagel spot: Wholly Bagels. Our town doesn’t have many options for bagels outside of the Einstein’s chain, so we rejoiced to learn that a New Jersey baker had opened a shop in our neck of the woods. And the nova lox are heavenly.

What were your favorite foodie finds of 2011?