Hosting Holiday Brunches

We like hosting brunches.  Because Will’s strength is in baking—he even bakes yeast breads, something I’ve never seriously attempted—brunches are good opportunities for us to cook up a storm and entertain a large group of people.  We’ve hosted annual holiday brunches for 7 years now with attendance fluctuating between 12 and 20 adults and children, depending on who is in town or has other commitments.  It’s a lot of work to prepare—especially the deep-clean of the condo that is necessary after my semester grades are submitted—and lots of food to keep track of, but we’re starting to develop strategies to make the brunch-hosting easier each year.

Everything doesn’t have to be cooked-from-scratch:
Sure, we were proud to say that we baked (from scratch) the brie, basil and roasted red pepper quiche or the Spanish egg-potato tortilla pie or the caramelized onion-pear-gorgonzola focaccia pizza (all items we have prepared in previous brunches).  They were good, but they were an awful lot of extra work when 2 people were preparing 8-10 dishes.  Then it turned out that one of the big hits from a previous brunch was a tomato-basil-mozzarella tart that was a cinch to bake and used a Pillsbury pre-made pie crust (which actually works better than a homemade crust for this particular dish).  I'm not quite prepared to go "semi-homemade" the Sandra Lee way for all items, but I don't turn up my nose anymore at a few shortcuts for a limited number of dishes.

In fact, you can even put out items that you’ve purchased from a store!:
Last year’s brunch was a revelation.  People loved (loved loved) potato knishes we got from a store.  No seasoning and shaping of potato patties or battering them and then frying them.  All we did was just pop them in the oven for 15 minutes, but guests not only didn’t mind that these were not homemade, but they raved about how special they were.  When something is unique or nostalgic or made really well (this last part is quite important), it doesn’t matter who made them.  They are just tasty.

Balance the selection of savory and sweet items:
We bake up a storm and offer many sweets, but we also recognize that brunch is most satisfying when you have a number of savory items to offset the sweets that the holiday season will inevitably include.  Adult guests almost always start with savory dishes and then work their way to sweets.  (Sometimes, they run out of room by the time they’re supposed to get to the sweets if they have not paced themselves.  This is a weakness I still have not overcome with all-you-can-eat buffets…)  On the other hand, some of our younger guests might eat nothing but sweets.  So, with 15-20 guests, we aim for 5 savory and 5 sweet items.

This year’s brunch menu consisted of:
1) Smoked salmon with crème fraiche, capers, chives—with French baguette rounds
2) Spiral Spinach pie with phyllo dough crust
3) Mango Jalapeno Chicken Meatballs and (when those ran out) Caramelized Onion Chicken Meatballs
4) Cocktail sized potato knishes (and a second tray of these were necessary when the first 30 were perilously close to running out)
5) Brie en Croute with Orange and Cranberry Compote. 

We always offer a cheese dish (or even just a cheese platter) and a mini-sausage or chicken meatball dish.  Some sort of smoked salmon and potato knishes have been on the menu the last couple of years—and these are very popular!  The spinach pie was new for this year and was a nice option for those who wanted something that vaguely resembled health food.

Sweets (all the pictured items):
1) Will’s famous poppy seed tea ring
2) Will’s equally famous cinnamon tea ring
3) Chocolate chip-brown sugar bundt pound cake with maple-espresso glaze.  (I decided to have sections of the glaze be regular vanilla glaze for the kids.)
4) Gingerbread Cake with Whipped cream-Lemon curd icing
5) Cornmeal scones with Fresh Raspberries and Blueberries (with Double Devon Cream offered next to them)

Will’s tea rings have always been a part of these brunches, and I suspect they always will.  It’s sort of nice to have a little continuity so that our guests can recall and look forward to items that are available only at our brunch once a year.  The other selections change yearly, but we generally like to have some type of scones (like almond chocolate chip or cranberry orange), some type of fruity item (like blueberry streusel buckle or pear and cranberry crumble), something gingerbread-y (last year it was ginger scones) for the holiday season, and something kid-friendly (this year, I heard kids asking their parents if they could have more slices of chocolate chip pound cake).

Some final thoughts before we close out this year’s brunch season:
1) Try to keep track of the latest in everyone’s dietary preferences:
Last year, we discovered that one of our young guests really loved scones (he had two ginger scones!).  So, we found a new recipe that looked to be a moist and flavorful scone: Cornmeal berry scones.  Well, it turned out that Tyler didn’t like to mix his fruits in food, so he stayed far away from the berry scones.  Luckily, they turned out quite tasty and were a big hit with others…

2) Try to remember everything you were going to put out:
We specifically got French Vanilla yogurt for the brunch (though we ourselves mostly consume unflavored Greek yogurt with honey and fruits).  The yogurt, along with fresh fruits we were supposed to offer, is a nice bit of “healthy”-seeming addition to a brunch and is usually much appreciated.  This year, we completely forgot that yogurt and fruit were sitting in the fridge until after everyone left.  True, no one left hungry, but it would have been nice to follow through with our best-laid plans.

3) Continue to rely on traditional items that guests bring:
Ever since our brunch tradition began in 2004, our friend Hector has brought a rich Puerto Rican drink called Coquito.  Rum-laced and sweet, the coquito is as tasty added to coffee as it is on its own.  He brings a non-alcoholic version (with rum to add, on the side) so that everyone can enjoy the coquito.  Hector’s coquito and his wife (my friend) Loretta’s fruits slices with a creamy-nutty-curry dip are as much staples of these brunches as Will’s tea rings.  It’s nice to have others as invested in our brunch tradition as Will and I are.

Admittedly, these brunches are time-consuming and involve a lot of work.  But we enjoy hosting these brunches every year and getting everyone together, and we always remind our guests to mark their calendars for the next year as they are leaving.

Have a very Happy New Year, and see you all in 2012!


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