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March 10, 1994|MARION CUNNINGHAM

Breakfast is the best meal of the day; it is like a friend one meets each morning--comforting, familiar, sustaining. Made of honest, simple ingredients, it is the barometer for the day. As 19th-Century British essayist Leigh Hunt once wrote: "Breakfast is a forecast of the whole day; spoil that and all is spoiled."

After the publication of "The Breakfast Book," which I wrote to celebrate the day's most neglected meal, I received a fan letter from an Englishman who summed up my feelings on the matter: "My favorite American food is breakfast (not in the loathsome dry-cereal sense). But it is getting harder and harder to find in this country. Hotels and innumerable restaurants now serve brunch and dish up mainly super-chic dollops of quail liver with pineapple sauce, chicken breast with bacon and peacock tongue gravy and similar folderols, and you're lucky to find one rubbery omelet on the menu.

"As for the corner lunch counters, which used to be best, the neighborhood salvation, they have all but disappeared. There are no pancakes worth the name, no hash, no country sausage, no scrapple, nothing. Dollar pancakes have practically vanished."

One of the saddest losses of all is that there is an entire generation of young Americans who don't know the true language of breakfast with homemade dishes. They define the meal as a snack of pop-ups and candy-like cold cereal.

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Many people also think of breakfast as brunch, but the two are totally different meals. Brunch has no defined ingredients and preparations--it can be any type of meal. It's almost always a party-like affair, served with wine and liquor and with an assortment of unrelated dishes.

Breakfast, of course, involves no alcohol and usually consists of grains, dairy products, fruits and maybe eggs or a little meat or fish. Breakfast has remained pure amid all the food trends with their stylish dishes and fancy ingredients. The honest simplicity of breakfast is still captivating.

In spite of today's attention to health and what we should and shouldn't eat, salt or no salt, sugar or no sugar, we tend to overlook one of the healthiest parts of eating: Getting a good start with breakfast, which makes it the most important meal of the day. Lunch may be only a token meal, and dinner or supper a modest one, but before expending energy for the day, food is essential, and it should be made with good, wholesome ingredients.

The following recipes give some easy answers to breakfast: The ham and farm cheese butter-fried sandwiches are nourishing and appealing to children. The feather-bed eggs can be made ready to bake the night before needed. The prune and walnut loaf can be made long before needed and then sliced, frozen and toasted when desired.

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And last, the most delicious waffle in the whole world, raised waffles. This recipe comes from an early Fannie Farmer cookbook. The waffle is very crisp on the outside and delicate on the inside.

HAM AND FARM CHEESE BUTTER-FRIED SANDWICHES

4 slices fresh whole-wheat bread

About 3 ounces soft cream cheese

4 thin slices ham

1/4 cup butter

Lay 4 slices of bread on surface and spread each slice on 1 side with rounded tablespoon of cream cheese. Place 2 ham slices on top of 2 of slices and cover with remaining slices of bread. Melt butter over medium-low heat. Place sandwiches in pan and fry gently until bottom is golden, pressing down on each sandwich occasionally with spatula, this helps to melt cheese. Turn and fry other side. Serve warm. Makes 4 servings.

Note : Many markets carry fresh cream cheese, which is much better than foil-wrapped.

Each serving contains about:

299 calories; 563 mg sodium; 63 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

FEATHER-BED EGGS

Butter

6 slices bread, buttered to taste

Salt, pepper

1 1/2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar, Gouda, Provolone, Monterey Jack, or any other melting cheese

1 1/2 cups milk

6 eggs, lightly beaten

Arrange slices of bread in single layer in shallow, buttered baking dish. Season lightly to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle cheese evenly over bread.

In bowl combine milk and eggs. Stir until blended. Pour milk mixture over bread and cheese. Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight. As dish will be chilled when you are ready to bake it, start in cold oven. Bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour, or until bread custard is puffy and lightly golden. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

497 calories; 801 mg sodium; 377 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 0.10 gram fiber.

PRUNE AND WALNUT BREAKFAST LOAF

3/4 cup butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup milk

1 1/2 cups large walnut pieces

1 cup coarsely chopped pitted pruned

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