LONDON — With the festive season ahead of us, there’s a lot of feasting to be done. And, for it to be done properly — enjoyed, and not just endured — there are some dos and don’ts.
Generally, I tend not to be so prescriptive. But, around this time of the year, I do find myself getting a little bit list-y, the result of both my enthusiasm for the season and the wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years (and years) of hosting and eating. And as anyone who prepares feasts knows, there’s a lot of planning, shopping, chopping and cooking to be done.
To be useful, festive feast planning needs to be focused. As such, let’s stick to brunch.
Here are some things you want from a festive brunch — a recipe for brunch planning, if you like. As with all good recipes, you can take or leave what you like.
You want the main to be special enough to be served with a “ta-da!” but not steal the show entirely. It wants to be a little different, but your day shouldn’t peak before midafternoon. Think of pancakes: They’re something beyond the everyday but don’t totally ruin the mood (or the will to cook anything else that day).
You want the meal to fill everyone enough so that they leave the kitchen (and you) alone for a few hours, but not so much that they’re done eating for the day. You want it to be seasonal and comforting, but not so much that people want to go straight back to bed afterward. This is why eggs feature so often at brunch: They’re perfect at fueling without weighing you down.
You want it to be a balance of sweet and savory. Not so sweet that it leaves you reeling but sweet enough to ease people into the day and not feel too much like, well, lunch. But savory as well, since brunch is between breakfast and lunch. This is why strips of bacon or fried halloumi make so much sense with those pancakes — to counter all the maple syrup sweetness.
If those are a few things you do want from your festive brunch, here are a couple of things you don’t. Again, take it or leave it as you wish.
You don’t want brunch to take hours of preparation beforehand and hours of clearing and washing up afterward. This is where one-pot (or pan or tray) dishes come so much into their own: eggy omelets or frittatas, or the eggs I’ve been braising in various shakshukas for as long as I’ve been making brunch.
You don’t want to have to start cooking hours before brunch is ready. While keeping something on the stove or in the oven for four hours before supper isn’t an inconvenience, setting the alarm for 6 a.m. for a supposedly relaxed brunch is. Dishes where elements can be prepared the day before are always great here: batters that can be mixed early and left overnight; the tomato and red pepper base for the shakshuka, which can sit in the fridge for a day or two; fruit cooked down for a compote, ready to be swirled through thick yogurt.
Everyone’s normal is different, I know, as are everyone’s traditions. But those are some of my rules, and this dish of five-spiced squash in cheesy custard delivers everything I want. And it’s the recipe I’ll be making for brunch this season: I’ll be roasting the squash a day ahead, ready for the custard to be made up, poured over and quickly baked that morning. I’ll be happy not to have used every pot and pan in my kitchen, and delighted to see guests gathering around for equal amounts of sweet squash and savory custard.
Crucially, having done everything I need to do, I’ll be able to pull up a chair myself, to enjoy and be part of the meal. And being able to be relaxed and in the moment: Secretly, that’s the most important ingredient for a happy, festive meal.
Recipe: Five-Spice Butternut Squash in Cheesy Custard