To brunch and beyond

A sweet and savory anytime meal that lets you set the rules.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the warmth of summer lingers, Main Street cafes continue to draw lines for that weekend meal favored by the sleep-in-late crowd: brunch. A mixture of breakfast and lunch, sweet and savory, brunch serves up something for everyone. Enjoy fruit salad, crepes, sliced roast beef, or simply opt for bacon and eggs. There are no menu rules, say chefs, but whatever you choose, use brunch as an opportunity to indulge a little.

"It just deserves a medal," says chef Curtis Stone of The Learning Channel's "Take Home Chef." "It just gives you complete flexibility as a chef. You can serve it between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It gives you the opportunity of doing a lot of sweet stuff and also savory."

When Mr. Stone makes brunch, he'll whip up anything from baked prosciutto cups filled with poached eggs to grilled portobello mushroom caps topped with fresh basil and ricotta cheese. Even a simple plate of steamed asparagus with browned butter and a fried egg will do, he says. "You can start out with something savory and end with the blueberry pancakes or waffles or cinnamon French toast."

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Stone likes to experiment with brunch because he says it's about "breaking the rules of tradition, and approaching it as a meal to entertain at, as opposed to something to just start the day with."

Whether it's a special occasion or just an excuse to whip up waffles, brunch usually involves a little splurge, says Kevin Donoghue, manager of Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette, Ill. Every weekend, people line up around the corner for a table in this restaurant locally famous for its apple pancakes and stained-glass windows. "Brunch is special," he says. "Someone having brunch may think along the lines of eggs Benedict or an apple pancake, something that they would not normally eat."

Though people often associate brunch more with breakfast, lunch fare is perfectly acceptable – there's no right or wrong approach, says Georgeanne Brennan, author of "Brunch: Recipes for Cozy Weekend Mornings." "If I'm hosting a brunch, it tends to lean more toward the lunch side, with a nod to breakfast. If my son and his wife do it, it's more of a breakfast."

Ms. Brennan points to eggs as a versatile option for hosts. "You can make frittatas and quiches and things that bring in sausages, or you can use smoked salmon," she says. "You can make omelets, and people can put in whatever they want."

Stone says he's perfected his approach to making scrambled eggs by using a lot of heavy cream – as high as a 40-to-60 cream-egg ratio. He suggests cooking eggs over medium heat and slowly stirring them until they are like "big fluffy clouds." From there, he says, you can add bacon, chives, smoked salmon, or whatever you'd like. When fixing eggs, it's better to undercook than overcook them, he says.

For summer, one of Brennan's favorite dishes is a frittata made with fresh cherry tomatoes, basil, sautéed bell peppers, onions, and other vegetables. She mixes in goat or Gruyère cheese. On the sweet side, she says a fresh-baked coffee cake is a delicious fail-safe (see recipe).

When making waffles or pancakes, Brennan separates the eggs and beats the whites before folding them into the batter. It yields a lighter texture, she says. "It's one extra step, but it works."

For a fancy brunch, Brennan suggests serving an elegant fruit platter with melons, peaches, cherries, and other berries. "Go overboard on that," she says. "Just squeeze some lime juice and [toss] a little cilantro on it. It perks it up." Shrimp cocktail is a good option, too. For an added touch, present food in an appealing way, perhaps serving coffee cake on a cake stand, poached eggs in ramekins, and garnishing dishes with parsley or a fresh ingredient, such as thyme.

Curtis's favorite trick for impressing guests is to pull out the blender and whip up fresh smoothies using a range of seasonal fruits. "Just stick everything in the blender," he says. "Set glasses on the table and go around pouring the smoothies. They're a one-dish wonder."

Ricotta and Banana Pancakes

Banana topping:

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

3 to 4 firm bananas, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Pancakes:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large or extra-large eggs, separated

1 cup ricotta cheese

2/3 cup milk

2 tablespoons sugar

Unsalted butter for cooking

For banana topping: In a large, sealable plastic bag, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Dredge the bananas by shaking them in the sealed bag. Shake off excess and set aside. In a frying pan, heat the butter over medium heat until bubbly. Add the coated bananas and fry until crisp on both sides, about 5 to 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

For pancakes: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, mix egg yolks, ricotta cheese, and milk. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and blend. Beat the egg whites and sugar until stiff peaks form, about two minutes. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whites into the batter.

Turn griddle to medium heat. (Or use a wide frying pan over medium heat on stove.) Add 2 tablespoons butter. When butter foams, pour 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter per pancake onto the griddle, spacing them apart. Cook until the batter bubbles. Flip pancakes and cook until golden, a few minutes more. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more butter as needed. Serve with warmed banana topping and syrup.

Serves 4 to 6.

Brown Sugar Apple Coffee Cake

Cake:

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large or extra-large egg

1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 cup milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and diced

Topping:

1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

For cake: Butter an 8-inch square baking dish. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg just until the yolk and white are blended. Add sour cream, milk, and melted butter, and mix well. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir just until ingredients are blended. Stir in chopped apple. Spread batter evenly in the baking pan.

For topping: Combine brown sugar, flour, and butter in a bowl. Using your fingers, work the ingredients together until a crumbly mixture forms. Add the walnuts and mix well with your fingertips. Sprinkle the topping evenly over batter. Bake the coffee cake about 30 minutes, or until the topping is browned and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes, then serve warm.

Serves 6 to 8.

Recipes are adapted from 'Brunch: Recipes for Cozy Weekend Mornings' by Georgeanne Brennan (Simon & Schuster).

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