It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

Spring brunch for six to eight

That first brunch of late spring and early summer somehow tastes better than any other meal of the season. This year my sister and stepmother joined us just as the weather went from a lovely preview of summer to a flashback to early spring.

Menu

The menu has everything I look for in a brunch: something baked, fruit, a vegetable — preferably asparagus, a protein, caffeinated drinks, and bubbly. It feels a bit fancy, but is not stressful to prepare.

Mimosas are the preferred brunch drink here because I prefer both OJ and bubbly to tomato juice and vodka; finishing the bubble while washing dishes my time-honored wind-down after everyone has left.. The asparagus tart recipe shows up on every spring brunch menu I make. It's easy to assemble, looks elegant, it gets a vegetable onto the menu, and can be serve warm or room temperature, as finger food or eaten with a knife and fork. The scones are the same ones I make for weekend breakfasts. For Philly, grits are a bit "exotic," like scrapple might be elsewhere in the country.

Day or night before

Always prep as much as you can the day or night before.

For the grits: pre-measure the cup of grits and three cups of water.

Roast the peppers: Set the oven to broil. Cut each pepper into thirds from top to bottom so that the sides are fairly flat. Remove stem and seed. Tear off a piece of tinfoil wider than the pepper pieces laid out side to side with enough on either side to fold up. Lay the foil on a baking sheet and the peppers in the foil and slide under the broiler. I usually need to get the peppers right under the broiler until they are touching or nearly so. Broil for five minutes.

Prep the remaining peppers so that you can quickly rotate them into and out of the oven.

After broiling for five minutes, the entire skin should be blackened. Fold the foil over the peppers and create an air tight seal so that the peppers can steam for another ten minutes.

Open the foil, peel off the blackened skin. Store in an airtight container.

Scones: Honestly, I'd hoped to bake them the night before, but ... do you really want to hear about my health problems? No? I don't either.

Mix the dry ingredients. Mix the wet ingredients in a small bowl that you can seal. Chop the ginger, keep separate. This is a good stopping point, especially if your butter is frozen, or you can cut in the butter, mix everthing in, roll out and cut the scones, place onto a baking sheet and pop into the fridge until the next day.

Asparagus tart: It's served at room temperature and can be baked ahead and covered, but it really can't be pre-assembled like the scones. You can grate the cheese and cut the woody stems off the asparagus. In the linked recipe Martha is peeling her asparagus, and it's very nice that she (or her staff) has the time for that. No peeling in this house.

Eggs: Make sure the salmon is defrosted. Cut salmon into bite-sized pieces. Snip the chives that grow organically in your front garden because nothing bothers the dang things.

Other: The usual, set the table, get out the serving dishes, put out some candles. Fill the coffee maker and the tea kettle. Put the bubbly in the fridge.

The day of

Always make a schedule, broken down into 10 or 15-minute intervals. What needs to happen next? Look! There it is! Include any cleaning you might need to do. For big events like Thanksgiving, we will have a schedule for every teen or adult in the house. Total the cooking times (the tart has two!), (over)estimate the remaining prep times, and then work back from the guests' arrival time.

My schedule for everyone arriving at 1:

9:00Clean house like mad people because it's too cold to be outside and you mowed the lawn instead of cleaning.
11:30Preheat oven to 400F for tart, pulse peppers in the food processor
11:45Roll out puff pastry and pre-bake 15 mins
12:00Assemble tart and bake 25 mins
12:15Fry garlic for grits
12:20Bring grits to a boil, reduce heat, simmer 28 minutes
12:25Tart out of the oven and onto cutting board; increase oven temp to 425F; form scones
12:40Scones into oven for 14 minutes (this is my time)
12:45Start tea and coffee, put butter on table to soften get out OJ and bubbly
12:50Grits off the stove, stir in chopped peppers
12:55Scones out of the oven, into basket
1:00Jorj starts eggs, everything onto the table

Recipes

Roasted pepper grits

2 red or yellow peppers, roasted
2 Tbs oil or butter
1 clove garlic
1 c grits
3 c water
3/4 tsp salt
ground pepper

Roast peppers (see above). Pulse in food processor until mostly pureed, but some pepper pieces remain.

In a 2-quart saucepot, heat oil over medium high heat. Saute garlic until golden and fragrant, no more than a minute.

Pour in water, salt and grits. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook 28 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir in roasted pepper puree. Adjust seasoning.

If you want creamy grits, add butter.

Jorj's scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, cream cheese and chives

1 dozen eggs
6 ounces smoked salmon
4 ounce cream cheese
snipped chives
salt and pepper to taste

Cut salmon into bite-sized pieces. Cut cream cheese into 16 cubes.

For this many eggs, a 12" frying pan is best. Bring the pan to heat over medium high heat. If the pan is still cold at the edges, this won't work. Add two tablespoons butter or oil; swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Pour in eggs, stir. Add cream cheese cubes, stir. Add salmon pieces, stir. Add chives and pepper to taste, stir. Continue stirring until eggs are still a bit runny (not much!) and transer into a serving bowl. Overall this should take about five minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Sprinkle with a bit more chive on top. Eggs will continue to firm up.

Le Cordon Bleu Professional Baking and The Culinary Institute of America Baking and Pastry

My final go-to volumes for basic cakes are two textbooks from Le Cordon Bleu and The Culinary Institute of America given to me by my aunt-by-marriage, food writer Anne Mendelson. Both focus on basic technique and recipes &emdash; building blocks &emdash; rather than a specific dessert. Meant to be used in a retail or commercial bakery, the yields are usually triple a home recipe (six dozen cupcakes or six nine-inch cake layers). Very useful for wedding cakes, and other situations calling for insane amounts of cake.

Interestingly enough, they don't have the same recipes. From Gisslen's book, I bake the spice cake and angel food cake. From the CIA cookbook, I bake the lemon chiffon cake, creme anglaise, German buttercream, and cream cheese icing (which is equal weights of cream cheese and butter, and less powdered sugar). I refer to both for basic research when I need a new cake or sweet yeast bread recipe; they provide me with good ideas and point me in the direction to go.

From these basic recipes, both show how to build ever-more complex pastries up to architectural wonders.

If you don't want or need six dozen cupcakes (or you need twelve dozen, or four fifteen-inch layers), Professional Baking has a chart of how much batter to use for any size layer. Both teach scaling (how to increase and decrease a recipe for more or fewer servings) and basic recipe ratios. The also cover most baking ingredients, from all-purpose flour through lychees, and equipment from measuring spoons through steam-injection ovens.

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