Baked Goods

Brunch is not complete without a few baked goods. That’s a particular challenge for me since I don’t care for danishes and their fruit fillings. When I saw that this recipe slapped pancetta on top of pastry dough filled with bechamel, I knew it was written with me in mind. Glenn made them for the first time for New Year’s Day 2009 and I specially requested them for my birthday brunch. They are hearty and rich and gorgeous to boot.

At first glance, the recipe for Bacon Pastry Slices may look excessively complicated. It is a multistep process, but the results are well worth the effort. The dough is very sticky, but this video has some great pointers on how to work with it. Both times that Glenn has made them, he has assembled them the day before, refrigerated them over night, and topped them with cheese before popping them in the oven in the morning. That system seems to work beautifully.

One of my friends graciously agreed to bring a birthday cake substitute, these streusel muffins. This picture really does not do them justice (I was so anxious to pop one in my mouth that I couldn’t be bothered to turn them all right side up). The muffins were airy and the streusel was crumbly. I had one every morning for breakfast the following week.

Another friend surprised me with chocolate chip and pumpkin ginger scones. These cakey biscuits studded with sweetness were absolutely delicious.


The Eggs

I used to fear that all egg casseroles were alike — a dozen eggs, a pound of sausage, a couple cups of cheese, a few slices of torn up bread. Nine recipes later, I know that you can achieve a wide variety of flavors and textures in your baked eggs. Both of the dishes I made for my birthday brunch were new to me and both were exquisite.

This Spinach and Cheese Strata was spongy and light, more like a bread pudding than an egg casserole. It required very little prep work, was easy to assemble, chilled overnight, and went straight into the oven in the morning. I probably baked it ten minutes longer than necessary, but it was very forgiving. I thought the browned edges were a nice contrast to the spongy center.

This was my first attempt at quiche, so I searched high and low for the perfect recipe. Every blogger I consulted told her own story of quiche disaster — broken shells and overflowing custards. I was a little put off, but still determined. I opened up the Joy of Cooking and, of course, that’s where I should have started. As usual, Joy gave it’s firm instructions on how to make the perfect quiche followed by several variations. The trick to making a quiche turn out is pre-baking the shell so that it stays brown and flaky even after you pour in the custard. After rolling the dough out and placing it in the pan, we covered the shell with aluminum foil and filled it with rice to weigh it down. After it baked for about fifteen minutes, we removed the rice and foil, brushed it with a beaten egg, and baked it for ten minutes more. Then the shell was ready to fill and bake. It was sort of an ordeal, but well worth it.

Quiche Lorraine

one 9 1/2″ pie crust
1 egg, beaten

4 slices of bacon, chopped into small pieces
1 thick slice of ham, cut into small cubes
1 cup of shredded Gruyere
1/2 cup of sliced red onion
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 tsp nutmeg
salt and freshly ground pepper

Roll out the pie crust and fit it into a 9 1/2″ pie pan. Weigh it down with pie weights or cover with aluminum foil and fill with rice . Bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Remove weights (or foil and rice – rice can be reserved for later use). Brush crust with beaten egg. Bake for 10 more minutes or until golden brown.

Fry bacon until cooked, but not crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add ham and onion to the bacon grease and fry until the ham is browned and onions are softened. Remove the ham and onions and drain.

Beat 3 eggs with the cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Once the crust is baked, spread the bacon, ham, onions, and cheese in the bottom of the shell. Pour the beaten eggs over the top. Bake at 375 for about an hour.

Biscuits and Gravy

I have failed at making biscuits and gravy many, many more times than I’ve succeeded. However, after making two good batches in a row (never mind that they were almost a year apart), I don’t believe I’ll ever fail again. You can see success number one over here and success number two above. I now know the secret to thickening gravy.

The secret to making thick and flavorful gravy is making a good roux. To make the roux, combine equal parts fat and flour in a large pan (preferably cast iron). One tablespoon each of fat and flour per person ought to do it. If you want stay-where-you-put-it gravy, you can add more flour a spoonful at a time until the grease won’t absorb it. Then cook the mixture until it is a deep brown color. Then add the liquid and stir slowly and constantly. If you’re a worry wart, you can spend the next twenty minutes agonizing over whether or not the gravy will turn out. But there’s really no need to worry — if you’ve done your work up front with the roux, the gravy will always turn out.

Breakfast Gravy:
1 lbs country sausage
2 Tb fat (from sausage or bacon)
2 Tb flour
2 cups milk

Brown the sausage in a large pan. Cook it slowly over a low heat to render the most fat.

After the sausage is cooked, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula and save it for later.

Asses how much grease you have. You can either eyeball it or pour it into a small liquid measure. If you don’t have enough grease, add some bacon grease (presumably you have a jar of it in your refrigerator).

Add the flour to the grease. Cook over low heat until the clumps are stirred out and the mixture is brown. If necessary, add more flour to achieve a more pasty consistency.

Stirring constantly, slowly pour in the milk. Bring the mixture to a very gentle simmer. In fact, it may not form bubbles because you’ll be stirring the entire time. Cook until the gravy thickens, stirring to prevent the bottom from burning or the top from scumming. It could take 30 minutes to thicken.

Salt and pepper the gravy generously, stir in the sausage, and serve over biscuits.

Potato Pancakes

It’s fitting that the ketchup is the only thing in focus in this picture. That also seemed to be the focus of the conversation, Ketchup?! How Midwestern! and These latkes are great, but next time you should try them with sour cream and applesauce. I tried to avoid any great expectations by calling them Potato Pancakes, but maybe I should have introduced them as Hash Brown Bites. Oh well. At least everyone seemed to appreciate the potato part of the dish (they even received the Jewish seal of approval from one friend).

There were three key aspects to making the Potato Pancakes nice and crispy. First of all, as I learned from my brother, moisture is the enemy of crispiness, so you really have to drain the potatoes. After shredding the potatoes in the food processor, I used cheesecloth to squeeze out all the excess water (and there was a lot of it). Secondly, nothing works better for frying than cast iron. I used my new two-burner griddle, but a cast iron frying pan would work just as well (just not as fast). Finally, I reheated the potato pancakes in the oven before serving them, which added some additional firmness.

These were an easy to make and easy to eat — the perfect combination for any brunch buffet.

Birthday Brunch

My family is big on breakfast and not in a most-important-meal-of-the-day way, but in a special-occasions-call-for-special-breakfasts way. Every time I go home to Kansas City, my brother makes up a huge breakfast extravaganza for me, which must include at least one item from each of the breakfast groups (egg, meat, bread, potato, and gravy). It was at these extravaganzas that I learned to thicken gravy, flip an omelet, crisp hash browns, and mix pancake batter.

As special as extravaganzas are, I wanted to take it up a notch for my birthday. How can you do that? Have a brunch. What makes it a brunch? Salad. Who wants to eat salad when there’s quiche and potato pancakes and gravy? Lots of people. Trust me. These bowls were licked clean by the end of the morning.

The green salad was nothing special. I just threw together all my favorite ingredients: arugula, red onion, goat cheese, pecans, and dried cranberries. I tossed it with balsamic vinegar and olive oil (not even emulsified, just straight out of the bottle) and everyone loved it.

Hiding behind that green salad is a fruit salad like none other. I have been ogling this salad on Smitten Kitchen for more than a year and finally found the opportunity (and the ingredients) to make it. The fruit soaks overnight in a simple syrup spiced with a vanilla bean, star anise, and lemon zest. In the morning you drain it and toss the fruit with pomegranate seeds. I’m still looking for a use for the leftover simple syrup — a sweetener for tea, perhaps?

Stay tuned for the rest of the brunch recipes — I’ll be posting them throughout the week.