Gird yourself for the brand new year at the best breakfast joint in town.
By Leslie Bilderback 12/02/2010
This is going to sound stupid, but every New Year’s Eve comes as a shock. After I sweep away the last pine needles, satisfied that I have fulfilled the family’s merriment needs for another year, I lounge complacently in the holiday afterglow, until I am rudely reminded that there is still one more holiday. But by Dec. 31, I am fork tender, overdone and in no mood to entertain yet again.
My dream of a swanky New Year’s Eve party, with dancing, passed hors d’oeuvres, kissing and music by Harry Connick Jr., died when my body decided that 8:30 p.m. is bedtime. (Which, together with my ability to pop out of bed like a daisy at
5 a.m. and my sudden and frequent use of the phrase “kids these days,” has created in me an old age trifecta, signaling my impending senility.) Besides, no one I know parties like that in real life. (Note to self: Get introduced to more people like Nick and Nora Charles.)
I would, however, be totally up for experiencing a Times Square New Year’s Eve one day. I’ve always wanted to watch the ball drop live, sans Dick Clark and his New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. (Which I still feel obligated to watch out of respect, even though it stopped rockin’ for me in 1991. I figure if Dick can make the effort, then I certainly can.) But a trip to Times Square at New Year’s is going to require training, much like one trains for a mountain climb or a marathon. I would need to build up stamina slowly by subjecting myself to increasingly larger crowds. I’ll know I am ready when I can shop at Trader Joe’s on a Sunday afternoon without coming to blows in the nut aisle. I should probably also work on my afternoon napping which, as wonderful as it sounds, usually makes me feel loopy for the rest of the day. (Yep, I am blaming it on the naps.)
Until that day arrives, I will have to be content with the Roses. It is, after all, the mother of all parades. I guess there’s some sort of sporting event that day too, but for a band geek like me, the Rose Parade is the event. The sound of a marching band gives me more chills than Barry White ever did.
Our Rose Parade ritual does not involve camping out along the parade route, or even sitting in the bleachers. As soon as the girls could both ride bikes, we started The Midnight Ride. After the ball drops, we get on our bikes and ride over to the nearly 2-mile stretch of Orange Grove Boulevard, where the floats are lined up and judged. Here you can get close enough to appreciate the intricate layering of marigold petals, shiny sage leaves and coconut fiber. Seeing the floats in such detail is enough to make you wonder, “Whose idea was this and what they were thinking?” The progression from an 1890 horse-drawn carriage decorated with flowers to these colossal vegetable-based constructs of craftwork is a mystery for the ages. It’s wonderful, awesome and totally bizarre. (It’s not all that far removed from Lady Gaga’s meat dress when you really think about it. Just imagine what would have happened if the Valley Hunt elders had decorated their wagons with ostrich feathers? Or animal fur? )
Bundled up in parkas, hats and mittens (a rare SoCal use of these items), we head to Orange Grove, which is closed to traffic that morning. It’s a good four or five blocks until we reach the first floats lined up in numbered spots along the west side of the street. There the crowds are thick, so we get off our bikes and walk. (We weren’t the first family with this idea.) We take pictures, ooh and aah, and wish a happy new year to everyone we pass. White-jacketed tournament people zip to and fro on scooters, horses and bands unload on the side streets and wobbly after-partiers navigate the scene in high heels and silly hats. The float judges make their way down the lineup, guided by floodlights bright enough to simulate morning, shedding an unflattering fluorescence on even the most elegant revelers.
When we reach the last float at Colorado Boulevard, we hop on the bikes and ride back (or rather, coast, as Orange Grove is slightly downhill from north to south). There is something magical, and a little rebellious, about bike riding in the middle of the street. The urge to slalom down the double yellow line singing the chorus of Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law is irresistible.
After the midnight ride we are wide awake and hungry. Unfortunately, local feeding establishments that usually cater to the insomniac crowd seem to think they deserve New Year’s Day off. (In my book, “24/7” also implies 365, so if you’re taking Jan. 1 off, I consider that false advertising.) The closest place serving food is IHOP on Arroyo Parkway, but it’s full of the still-drunk trying unsuccessfully to sober up, and there is only so much I’m willing to sit through for a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity breakfast. So, after years of experimentation, it was determined that the best breakfast joint at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day is home.
The key to a successful 3 a.m. feed is prep. There is no way I’m breaking out the measuring spoons and sifter at that hour. But, being me, I am also unwilling to serve anything whose proper name includes the word “toaster.” Thus, I have developed an arsenal of do-ahead favorites that are festive enough for the occasion, but easy enough to prepare ahead of time and throw in the oven to warm while we’re biking.
The family favorites are all similar in concept — casserole in nature and variants of bread pudding — such as French Toast Casserole (French bread layered with cream cheese and sautéed apples in a cinnamon custard), Sausage and Cheddar Strata (sausage and onions layered with bread, baked in a cheesy custard) and Breakfast Chilaquiles (tortillas layered with eggs and cheese in a spicy chile custard). I prefer Roast Beef Hash, Baked Shrimp and Grits Casserole or a Spanish Tortilla (basically a potato frittata), but they are less popular with the in-house critics, probably because they are not sweet or cheesy enough to induce immediate sleep.
After the ride we be-jammy ourselves, grab a heapin’ helpin’ of whatever I decided to put in the oven and snuggle into warm piles of blankets and pillows in front of the TV. There we eat and doze to the din of marching bands and Bob Eubanks’ horse facts, occasionally waking up to catch a glimpse of people freezing their tails off, jammed into the bleachers along Colorado Boulevard, from which they can barely see the layered marigold petals.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker and chef, a cookbook author and lead pastry instructor at École de Cuisine in Pasadena. You can hear her speak about her latest book, Everything Bread, and her work with the U.S. Navy at the Glendale Public Library, 222 E. Harvard St., Glendale, on Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. A South Pasadena resident, Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.