My friend Brian Justice, who does the clever illustration you see of me in every issue of this magazine, lives in Chicago. He tells me that in The Windy City, at-home brunches are a thing. “Brunches here are almost as popular as dinner parties,” he says. “People host big brunches at the drop of a hat, unlike in Kansas City, where they haven’t caught on.” Having grown up here, Brian can claim knowledge of Kansas City’s social habits. He is right; except for Easter and Christmas family fêtes, and the occasional baby or bridal shower, the at-home brunch does not seem to be a thing here, at least not in my circles. But my St. Louis mom was fond of throwing brunches, so I can write of them with some authority and feigned zeal.
Dinner parties, I can’t quit you
In the 11 years I’ve written Essential Entertaining, I’ve always meant to devote a column to the topic of brunch. In fact, it is my obligation, as a full-service entertaining columnist, to address the brunch, never mind that I personally eschew hosting brunches in favor of the adored, the revered, the beloved dinner party. There’s something so marvelous, so intimate about lingering around the table in the flickering candlelight, telling stories and drinking adult beverages, then hugging guests adieux as they toddle home to their pillows—very unlike a brunch, where guests march off to vacuum out their cars and do laundry.
Brunches have their place
My friends Bonar Menninger and Ann Cain (the dish snob who collects the coveted Royal Copenhagen Flora Danica) hosted a brunch recently. It’s a long story, but the guests of honor were a couple from Australia whom they had never met yet felt obligated to show some form of hospitality. Since Ann didn’t know them, she liked the implied end time of a brunch, just in case they weren’t fun. These are the sort of extenuating circumstances that cry out for a brunch.
Indeed, brunch is a perfectly viable format for entertaining friends and family, especially if children are on the guest list, or older people who no longer venture out at night, or if you’ve just had your windows washed and want to show them off … or if everyone is just too over-scheduled to engage in, as the rest of decent society does, a dinner party.
As it turned out, Bonar and Ann’s guests were quite fun, and it was a wonderful gathering. Of course, Ann set a beautiful table, although she did not deign to bust out the Flora Danica.
The four building blocks of brunch
Brunches also are a solid, cost-effective solution when you have a big crowd coming, more than you can seat at your dining table. All you need for a respectable brunch are: a big, gooey, egg casserole; a fruit salad—both of these are easy to make in mass quantities; an assortment of baked goods, and mimosas and Bloody Marys. (And I suppose you could get away with foregoing the hooch altogether; just don’t invite me.) Here are some ideas for embellishing each of these elements.
Breakfast casseroles: so egg-cellent
Resist any menu that ties you, the host, to the stove making individual omelets, pancakes, waffles or French toast. You probably already have a great recipe for a hearty breakfast casserole, the kind you refrigerate overnight and then pop in the oven the next morning. I have a real fondness for these. What’s not to like about a big mouthful of custardy eggs, melted cheese, some sausage or ham? My friend Jonathan Bowyer gave me an excellent such recipe, and I will be happy to email it to you (and any others I mention in this column), but food snobs be forewarned: it calls for a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup.
If you have vegetarians coming, you could prepare Swiss Custard from Above & Beyond Parsley, a meatless egg strata made with white wine and Swiss cheese that snobs could substitute with Havarti or Gruyère. For the carnivores you could present a platter of link sausages and sugared bacon from Beyond Parsley, a scrumptious recipe, worth the mess of making it.
Or you could veer into luncheon territory. Years ago, my friend Ann Behrens served smoked salmon lasagna at a brunch. It was elegant and delicious. I hijacked the recipe and have been making it ever since. But I make it for dinner parties, because we all know about brunches and me.
Pithy advice about fruit salad
Ina Garten’s berry salad with limoncello (from her excellent Back to the Basics cookbook) is my favorite fruit salad recipe. A splash of limoncello will wake up the flavor in just about any fruit salad you make. A citrus plate is also a bright, cheerful addition to any brunch. Peel grapefruits, blood oranges and navel oranges, slice them into wheels, and arrange them on a platter. If you don’t have time to peel all that citrus, buy a few refrigerated jars from the produce aisle.
The requisite baked goods
If you are a person who finds baking therapeutic, by all means knock yourself out on homemade muffins and scones. Your guests will probably notice and appreciate it. But they still will have a wonderful time if you serve store-bought baked goods. There are so many exceptional bakeries in Kansas City! I am partial to Dolce Bakery in Prairie Village—they make everything from scratch. Their sweet-potato scones would be the belle of any brunch.
I recently made a batch of Cheddar Swirl Breakfast Buns from Deb Perelman’s tour de force The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. They were spectacular but a timesuck. The rise time was four hours! These would be lovely to take to someone else’s brunch.
Brunch because bellini bar
I saw a girl in Westport wearing a T-shirt that said “brunch because mimosas.” She probably did not notice or care that I nodded in approval, although my T-shirt would say “brunch because bellinis.” In any case, another reason to be sincerely enthusiastic about hosting brunch is the ease of assembling the bar. You need only makings for Bloody Marys and mimosas—or more flavorful bellinis. Classic bellinis are made with prosecco and peach purée, but you can make them with any fruit purée: kiwi, cantaloupe, strawberry, raspberry, watermelon. You could assemble a bellini bar, with an assortment of luscious fruit purées. Frozen fruits work beautifully in purées. Or put together a Bloody Mary bar, with pitchers of tomato juice along with infused vodkas, Tabasco, Worcestershire, Sriracha, olive juice and the like.
This recipe, adapted from one in the classic Beyond Parsley cookbook of the Junior League of Kansas City, is absolutely delicious. Even vegans will love the way it makes your house smell. These nibbles, terrific for a brunch, also make a knock-out appetizer to serve with drinks.
1 pound thick-sliced bacon, at room temperature
1-1/4 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Cut each slice of bacon in half, crosswise. Mix sugar and cinnamon together and thoroughly coat each slice of bacon. Twist slices and place on rack in a broiler pan in a 350-degree oven. Bake until bacon is crisp and sugar is bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes. Watch closely as the sugar burns quickly. Cool on foil. Serve at room temperature. These may be made hours ahead.