Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The perfect brunch

One of the surprising joys of heating only by wood is that, when I get home from a weekend away, I can extend my vacation by a few hours as I sit on the couch under a blanket reading while i wait for the house to slowly absorb the heat radiating from the stove. It is a rare and too-often neglected pleasure, I think, to take time off simply to sit at the hearth with a book or with family and enjoy relaxing.

Another rare pleasure is brunch. I grew up with Sunday brunch almost every week. One of my fondest and most enduring memories from childhood was this weekend ritual. I would try my best to remember to wake early on Sundays so I could run downstairs and eat brunch with my favorite adult family friends, the only occasion on which I would stay at the table long enough to see the meal finished. Waking up early had two benefits - the first was that I actually got dressed and downstairs in time to stake a claim on an egg bagel, and the second was that I genuinely enjoyed Sunday mornings' adult company. Waking early backfired when I mixed up what day it was and woke up early on Saturday instead of Sunday, which was the day on which we spent mornings cleaning, or at least being nagged to clean.

This kind of ritual is one that I aspire to. One of my personal heroines, Miss Manners , advises that we do not do enough morning entertaining and err on the side of dinner parties, which are much more ornate as a rule, require more preparation, and have a tendency to fall short of expectations. Since brunch is a rare pleasure for most, it is always charming, and since few people eat as much over brunch (since no one actually comes before eating a small breakfast), it is much easier to prepare for and serve.

Brunch starts between 10 and noon.

My favorite brunch menu:

- Bagels (ONLY if you live within a 100 mile radius of New York City, or within certain other urban centers, which is the only place one can get bagels that are worth eating. Otherwise, stick with toast). Buy bagels fresh in the morning or the night before. Buying bagels in the morning is a perfect task for cohabitants who just get in the way or children who are old enough to drive and managed to wake up early enough.

- A spread of bagel toppers - this includes at minimum cream cheese, butter, and lox (homemade is easy enough (Look out for a recipe soon), but can also include tomatoes and cucumbers (if they're out of season, I'll forgive the absence or the purchasing, whichever you'd rather I forgive), plenty of dill, sprouts, flavored cream cheese, other cheese spreads, and sweet spreads such as jam, Nutella, dulce de leche, and sweetened condensed milk.

- Eggs - If you have bagels these are optional, and if you get into a brunch habit, i'd keep it at bagels and a spread of breakfast toppings, but eggs are a very easy way to impress people. See recipe below for an easy way to do it.

- Potatoes - Only do this if you don't have bagels, otherwise, it's starch overload. If you are going to cook potatoes, I personally like them cut in quarters (for small potatoes) boiled (until they're almost done) and then fried with caramelized onions, salt, and black pepper, preferably so they are slightly burned. Serve with sour cream and dill if you're clever, or with ketchup if you want your guests to walk all over your delicious cooking and top off an herbed souffle with this faux-vegetable so they can't taste anything except for corn syrup, vinegar, and tomatoes. A guest should never ask for ketchup unless the eggs and/or potatoes are too bland to bear (and even then - realize you might be considered very rude).

- Fruit, yogurt, and honey for dessert, though you can also simply put out chocolates, serve hot chocolate, or have fruit only. Don't serve melon after dessert, most guests will have trouble with their digestion if you do so, and you don't want to make them feel rude about not taking any melon. If you must serve melon, just have it out on the table so people can eat it whenever they want to.

-Tea and coffee on the table the whole time (only allowed in the case of brunch, in my opinion)

Herbed souffle

You'll need:
- Fresh or dried sage, oregano, thyme and/or marjoram and rosemary (in that order of most-to least - for 10 eggs - start with two hearty three-fingered pinches of sage , then a single three-fingered pinch of oregano, and a two-fingered pinch of both thyme and rosemary (three-fingered pinches include all fingers except the pinkie and two fingered pinches include the ring finger as well. a pinch refers to just the thumb and the index finger)
- A clove of very throughly minced garlic
- Eggs - 2 per person if there will be bagels, 3 per person if there will not be.
- about a half cup of Heavy Cream per half-dozen eggs (no, you cannot replace this with skim milk, lowfat cream, or half an half. Don't even try). Don't bother measuring the cream. just pour it. Being off by even half the amount won't hurt. Add more if you'd like.
- Salt and pepper
- A cast iron dutch oven or a casserole dish. Individual ramikins are great if you have them, and help keep the souffle hot, and therefore puffy, for longer
- Egg beater or a wisk
- Butter!

Make the souffle
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
- Butter your baking dish, bottom and sides. Go ahead and use a lot of butter.
- Combine eggs, garlic, herbs, salt, pepper, and cream in a deep bowl. Beat the hell out of the mixture until it starts to get frothy.
- Pour the mixture into the baking dish and set in the hot oven It should take between 15 minutes and a half hour depending on the amount of eggs. If it's in ramikins, it could take as little as 5 minutes though. The souffle is done when it has finished puffing up to unbelievable proportions and is slightly browned on top.
- Serve immediately or the souffle will deflate.

Due to the fact that you want to serve the souffle immediately, I'd go ahead and put it into the oven when brunch is supposed to start, assuming the by the time people sit down and tea and juice is poured the souffle will be done. Don't get up and check on it every second though - that makes for stressed out guests. For 10 eggs, check at the 15 minute point, and then again every 5 minutes if it needs more time.

If you're going to err on the side of adding too few herbs or too many, go for too many. If you make bland food you will forever be seen as someone who cooks bland food and no one will want to brunch with you. Over seasoning, however, is a mistake anyone can make, and it's harder to do in this case than to under-season. Add enough herbs so that it looks appetizing - that's how you know you've got enough. Appetizing means well seasoned, not bland or over-done. In the case of salt, one should always add just enough, or if you don't know how much that is add just short of enough and when you need to add more on the table do so immediately and visibly, perhaps adding "the eggs need some more salt, I'm sorry" so guests don't feel rude about salting their eggs in front of you and so that guests don't think you like, and therefore will continue to cook, bland food. If your food is inedible, admit it immediately and insist that no one eat it. If you're worried you might over season the eggs to this point, try a batch on yourself first.

In case guests forget:
- If you want to continue to be entertained please keep in mind that for all engagements including brunch guests must arrive at the appointed time, or no more than 15 minutes late.
- Once you consent to going (once again, to any engagement, and yes, you must submit a Yes or No response. "maybe" counts as no and you know it, but that gives you no right to say it) you cannot back out unless something major comes along (excuses not allowed include: another engagement that sounds better, a party that went too late the night before, or "I don't feel like it." Excuses that are allowed (I have included all of them): the death of any member of the immediate family or your own, extreme illness ("I feel a cold coming on" doesn't count), or an invitation to have brunch with the queen of England).
- Owning a cell phone does not change the rules, sorry.
- You must offer to help, but should not have to expect to actually do so short of helping to set out the meal or doing some dishes, and only this if you are a very close friend or family
- Thank the host, and, if possible, reciprocate by a similar show of hospitality, or at least offering several times.
- It is brunch, so bringing a present for the host such as wine or chocolate is unnecessary. However, expect to do so at dinner.

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