Brunch served with style

When designing a stylish summer brunch, let your individuality shine through in every detail. The food, the table setting, the service, and the ambience should all reflect your creativity and taste. This is easier than you think.

Begin by creating a striking centerpiece. Select colorful, unusual fresh vegetables from a local farmstand or market and combine them with sprigs of herbs such as rosemary, oregano, and flowering chives. Or gather a few armfuls of freshly cut flowers and arrange them loosely in an eye-catching container such as an old copper kettle, an ice bucket, or a soup tureen. Anything that holds water can become a vase.

Think about where you will stage your brunch: on the deck, in the backyard under a shady tree, or in your own dining room or kitchen.

Instead of a tablecloth, choose a brightly colored sheet, with oversized napkins in a contrasting color. Dinnerware and glassware should be simple, not heavily patterned. A busy table setting detracts from the food, which is the star of the show. Don't be afraid to mix patterns and colors of china and flatware. This is what creates personal style.

To extend the fresh summer theme, place a small potted flower or herb next to each table setting for guests to take home. A rectangular terra cotta planter, lined with a napkin, serves as an interesting bread basket.

Select light, casual music to help create the right ambiance.

Now to the menu. To make service easy and casual, set up a buffet on a table or counter adjacent to your dining area.

Greet your guests with a fresh-fruit "spritzer" on ice in a stemmed glass. Experiment with mango, papaya, peach or another fresh fruit puréed in a blender and mixed with sparkling water. As a casual start to the meal, invite guests to help themselves to a beautiful bowl of assorted fresh seasonal fruit cut into various shapes. You might wish to mix in tropical fruit such as star fruit and prickly pear.

To add interest, sprinkle the fruit with flowering herbs such as pineapple sage or with edible flowers such as nasturtium petals or marigolds. I like to top fruit salad with my own "mango mayo," a creamy combination of mango, plain yogurt, fresh tarragon, and lime juice, blended into the consistency of mayonnaise. Or wait to serve fruit until after the meal, and present it frozen and dusted with sugar. (See recipe, below.)

As guests mingle and enjoy their fruit appetizers and fresh drinks, step away to put the finishing touches on the hero of the brunch, the bread-boat soufflé. Remember, you want to enjoy your own party, so prepare as much as possible beforehand. Mince, grate, and slice ingredients earlier in the day, storing them in small bowls on the counter until you are ready to assemble the final soufflé.

When the soufflé is nearly done, summon your guests to the table. Once they are seated, stage a grand entrance with the bread-boat soufflé hot out of the oven, wrapping its base in a colorful textured towel or a simple white linen napkin for added effect. Serve immediately with a crisp green salad on the side. Then sit back and enjoy the company of friends, as well as their compliments on your lovely summer brunch.

Bread-Boat Souffle

1-1/2 tablespoons butter
1-1/2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup hot milk
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
2 tablespoons onion, minced
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf Italian bread, about 15 inches long and 5 inches wide (or 2 loaves, each about 12 inches long)
1/4 pound Gruyère cheese, thinly sliced
1 pound prosciutto, sliced paper-thin and cut into 1-inch pieces
5 egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Stir in the flour and blend until lightly browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the hot milk and bring to a boil. Let cool to lukewarm and whisk in the yolks. Stir in the basil, onion, Parmesan, and pepper. Set aside.

Horizontally slice off the top third of the bread and pull out most of the soft insides, leaving a 1/2-inch shell. Line the inside of the bread with Gruyère cheese and loosely scatter the prosciutto over it. Set aside.

In a large copper or stainless-steel bowl, beat the egg whites at low speed for 1 minute. Add the cream of tartar and salt. Beat on high until egg whites form stiff peaks. Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the soufflé batter to lighten it. Then fold in remaining whites.

Fill the bread with the soufflé mixture, pouring it carefully over the prosciutto and cheese. Place the bread on a cookie sheet, reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F., and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

Frozen Fruit

This dish makes a light ending to any meal and a beautiful presentation. Serve an assortment of frozen fruits, dusted with sugar, decoratively arranged on individual plates, and garnished with fresh mint. Be creative and use a variety of tropical fruits such as star fruit and prickly pear, making sure the fruit is ripe.

1/4 pound each of red and green seedless grapes, washed
2 bananas, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
1 small melon, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch wedges
1 pint strawberries, washed and cut in half
About 1/4 cup finely granulated sugar
1 bunch fresh mint

Cover bottom of a cookie sheet with plastic wrap and place the fruit on top. Do not let the fruit pieces touch. Dust fruit with sugar. Cover with another piece of plastic wrap and place in freezer for at least 4 hours. When ready to serve, arrange on individual plates and garnish with sprigs of mint. Serves 6.

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