I like to play hostess. Whatever your kingdom of nerdery may be – knitting, formula one, tumblrs of George Harrison looking awkward – I will let you have it. I will be daydreaming on the metro about menus. Maybe a week beforehand, I will be going through a stack of recipe books and post-it pages. I will make lists and lists of lists, of ingredients and guests. I will carefully calculate oven real-estate, because it is so small I can only make or heat one cake or tart at a time.
(In reality, the lists are only useful half the time, because often I get distracted with an aperitif and a friend and forget to prepare the the meringues three days in advance. I miss the market and have to get up early on the day, buying grapes because blackberries are nowhere to be found.)
The people that eventually arrive are secondary, sometimes, to the quiet pleasure of an evening juggling in my tiny kitchen, piling plates onto the washing machine and restacking the fridge to fit tart shells, bowls of whipped cream, cold-brewed coffee. Sometimes I weep into the washing-up when there is just no space left.
Brunch has the most scope for me – an amorphous meal that can encompass all of my latest favourites, savoury and sweet, mostly prepared in advance. Friends can drop by whenever with baguettes and flowers and help themselves to the spread.
For my three year Franceversary (three years! how?) I wanted brunch. For all of the above reasons, and for the fact that the last two years meant waking at 5.30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. So no time for lazy brunches. In the cookbook pile this time was Ottolenghi’s The Cookbook, my old favourite of Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, and Bill Sewell’s Food from the Place Below. And my mother’s book, for reference.
Here is my planning then, for a brunch to feed 10-15, with minimal effort on the day:
You need something savoury but breakfasty, probably with eggs. I have hated French toast ever since Scout camp when we called it “eggy bread” made of the polystyrene white sliced. I do love eggs benedict, or a stack of corn fritters but if you are serving more than four you cannot make to order.
Quiche is easiest for preparing ahead, and infinitely variable. Bill’s blog has the perfect quiche ratios and rules – the right combination of roast vegetables, always lots of cream, no milk. When I worked at the Café at All Saints I would invariably choose his quiche for lunch, crisp and golden on top, with scalloped edges of wholemeal pastry. The vegetables would invariably be roasted first to release a lot of water and concentrate their flavour – perfect for a sturdy quiche.
Mine was potato, rosemary and bacon quiche made with an extra ripe camembert. The night before I sauteed roughly chopped onion with lardons, then added some parboiled sliced potatoes (because my oven was too busy to roast them!) and at the end, rosemary and mustard. The wholemeal pastry was prepared overnight and left in the fridge to chill. The next morning I rolled it out, baked it blind and then filled with the potatoes and smelly cheese. I mixed eggs, cream and a good dollop of mustard (see Bill’s blog for the quantities). I made the mistake of filling the quiche to the brim and spilled some cream moving it to the oven: it is much easier to top it up in the oven.
That makes 10-12 slices as part of a larger meal (or 8 with plain green leaves for lunch). Then an enormous and colourful salad – four thinly sliced fennel bulbs tossed with 200g feta and some sumac, topped with the seeds of a pomegranate (Ottolenghi). I had an early arrival make the salad for me – trick your guests into being useful!
One more easy savoury item: a herby cornbread from my mother’s repertoire. The dry ingredients were weighed the night before so in the morning I just stirred in yoghurt, eggs and oil. It was ready in 45 minutes, served warm and fluffy with a delicate bite from the cornmeal.
Next, of course, sweet things: cakes biscuits and a killer chocolate spread…