Since I moved back to Portland, Oregon in 2005, I’ve thrown about 40 brunches. I started this for two reasons: one, when I first moved back, I lived in a tiny apartment and wanted to see as many old friends as possible. Brunch = eating standing up, if done correctly. And two, I had spent a stint working as a cook at the Point Way Inn, a bed and breakfast on Martha’s Vineyard, under the tutelage of Jaclyn Bettencourt.
The reason I kept doing brunches all these years? I discovered it was damn cheap. For example, I had about 52 people at my most recent brunch. The cost? About $110. Think about it: if you cook from scratch, brunch is made out of some very reasonably priced ingredients. Flour. Eggs. Cheese. Bacon.
Here’s the menu for this week’s Valentine’s Day brunch:
- Heart-Shaped Donuts (both yeast-raised and chocolate cake varieties)
- Tuscan Frittata Affrogata (baked in two heart-shaped cake pans, one without cheese)
- This Breakfast Casserole (added to the menu at the last minute, made from leftover bread from the Heart-Shaped Toasts and a can of Ro-Tel, drained, in place of the tomatoes and mushrooms)
- Heart-Shaped Toasts (rye and white bread, cut with cookie cutters) with cream cheese
- Bacon (made in the oven, much easier to make alot on a large scale)
Now don’t worry: donuts are for the advanced class. As it is, I was extremely lucky I had a friend who offered to help glaze and fill the donuts while I fried, and I was so busy the entire brunch that by the time I was able to socialize, most of the people had left. I don’t recommend it, except that the donuts were so good. The sort of treat you can really only experience at its best if you make it fresh!
So $110 is kind of a ballpark figure, as is the 50 attendees. I feel like I generally spend about $100, and I usually have 30 to 50 people, and bulk up or streamline my menu accordingly. Before we get started, I have a few general tips:
- Ask your guests to bring cheap champagne or OJ, if they want to contribute. This is probably the best money-saving tip I have. I generally have a couple of bottles on hand from the last brunch (I pay it forward), or I pick up a bottle or two just in case.
- I generally have things like flour, sugar, and coffee on hand. If you’re starting from a bare cupboard, expect to spend $10-$30 more.
- Shop your cheapest grocery store, and utilize store brands and the bulk aisles if you can. I shop at our local WinCo, which has an amazing, huge bulk section–I can find everything from bread flour to hunks of bittersweet chocolate at very low prices. Are you buying cheddar to put in an egg casserole? You can get the store brand. It’s not the star, as it would be on a cheese board, and no one will see the (lack of) label. Trust me.
- Make meat the accompaniment, not the main focus of the meal. This works for any menu–brunch, lunch, dinner, etc.
So let’s get started, and let me assure you: even if you have rudimentary cooking skills, if you plan ahead and give yourself enough prep time, you can do this!
I realized how easy it could be to cook brunch for a crowd while at the Point Way, where I would cook for about 30 people every day. The way we did it was simple, made even simpler because we weren’t zoned for stovetop cooking (we could use the oven, plug-in electrics like griddles, and the microwave): there would be one savory option, like a baked frittata, and one sweet option, like blueberry pancakes. In addition, there would be the following spread on a large table:
- Granola and yogurt
- Boxes of cereal
- Bagels and cream cheese, jam, or peanut butter
- Muffins or banana bread (made from aged bananas from the fruit bowl)
- Coffee and juices
My rule of thumb is to have one thing, max, that will need a lot of time and attention during the brunch–do whatever you can ahead of time. An example would be to serve quiche (baked ahead of time) and waffles (made during the party). Or cinnamon rolls (made ahead of time) and potato skins with scrambled eggs (eggs made during the party).
So let’s break this down into the following categories: Setup, Eggs, Bread, Meat, Fruit, Extras, Coffee, Alcohol, Cleanup, and Aftermath.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to plan ahead, and prep as much as you can. Fortunately, with brunch, you have a little extra time in the morning, too (I start my brunches at 11 am). However, once people start coming in through the door, it’s game on, and you’d better be prepared. This is what I do before I go to bed:
- Bake any coffee cakes/rolls/muffins (usually a day or two ahead)
- Put together any casseroles
- Cut fruit, blanch vegetables
- Lay the table: I cover my dining table with a clean tablecloth, set up plates, napkins, and flatware, and bring out any platters or cake stands I plan to use.
- Set up the coffee maker with water and grounds–just push start in the morning!
- Put out coffee mugs (should have done this for the most recent brunch).
- Set up any electrics–for example, I have a three-compartment warming tray that I always use. It’s great for bacon, grits, toast, etc.
- This is important: do as many dishes as possible. It’s best to start your brunch with an empty dishwasher, but not always realistic (see cleanup).
You can’t have brunch without eggs. I think it’s actually a law. Now scrambled eggs are always popular and simple to make, but it’s the more expensive way to go–even with cheese it’s mainly eggs, and you’ll need to have at least two per person. Thirty people = 60 eggs. Which is just scary.
Here’s my go-to recipe, which I’ve adapted from this casserole and made vegetarian (living in Portland, it’s easiest to have the meat separate from everything else). This is delicious. Put it together the night before the party, pop it in the fridge, and throw it in the oven in the morning. The tater tots melt into a hashbrown-like consistency:
Tater Tot Casserole
Serves about 30–increase by 50% for 50
2 packages tater tots (store brand)
4 cups half & half (buy extra for the coffee)
4 cups cheddar cheese, grated (I get the store brand pre-grated, for convenience)
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons salt
4 peppers, any color, chopped
2 yellow onions, chopped
1 Tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
Pepper, to taste
Grease an 11″ x 17″ pan (honestly, I suggest you go to a party store and get a large foil pan–cleaning the eggs out is a pain) or two 9″ x 13″ pans, and spread the tater tots on the bottom. Warm the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and add the peppers and onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, and spread them over the tater tots.
Mix together the eggs, half & half, mustard, and salt, beat well, and pour over the tater tots. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese on top, cover, and place the casserole in the refrigerator overnight. Bake in morning at 350 degrees, uncovered, for 45-60 minutes.
Other ideas for eggs: there are a million billion egg casserole recipes out there on the Internet. I also love making quiche, migas, or crisp potato skins with scrambled eggs (you need fewer eggs, since the potato skins are small and the potatoes fill people up).
When I say bread, I’m including pancakes, waffles, coffee cake, donuts, biscuits–whatever your heart desires. I’ve done biscuits and gravy (I use Bisquick, I don’t care, I love Bisquick biscuits), and I’ve done mini berry shortcakes (also using . . . Bisquick–shut up, it’s delicious).
One easy option to pair with the above Breakfast Casserole would be blueberry pancakes–just make the batter beforehand and fry them up as people arrive. However, I’d like to share a special recipe from the Point Way Inn, courtesy of my friend Jaclyn Bettencourt, who currently runs a tight ship at the Ritz Carlton Fort Lauderdale: Blueberry French Toast Cobbler.
Logistically, this may not pair well with the above casserole if you only have one pan (or only one oven), but if you’ve got the pans and the time, have at it (I’d suggest making the French Toast first and covering it tightly with foil to keep warm).
Note: One budget-busting pitfall is real maple syrup. If you need, sub in pancake syrup (pour it in a pitcher, or enjoy the retro stylings of Mrs. Buttersworth) or, if you have the option, buy maple syrup in bulk (I get mine at the People’s Co-Op here in Portland).
Blueberry French Toast Cobbler
Serves about 30 (increase by 50% for 50)
1 cup half & half
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder
20 1″ slices French bread (get two bigger loaves, not baguettes)
8 cups blueberries (I use frozen)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 Tablespoons butter
Using a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, half & half, vanilla, and baking powder. Pour into an 11″ x 17″ baking dish. Add bread slices, turning once to coat sides (make sure the bread completely covers the bottom of the pan). Cover and chill overnight.
In the morning, remove the bread gently to a cookie sheet. Combine the berries, sugar, melted butter, cornstarch, and cinnamon, and pour into the pan. Top with your bread slices and butter (break the butter into small chunks).
Bake at 400 degrees, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until bubbly and golden. Serve with syrup.
There are only two types of meat I serve regularly: bacon and sausage links. Both are delicious–and both can be gobbled up instantly.
Listen, people will eat as much bacon (or sausage) as you can make them. I generally shoot for 3-5 pounds, depending on the size of the crowd. To make it last, I give you this advice: do not buy thick sliced, and do not cook it all at once. With a brunch, you’ll generally have people coming throughout the day. If you serve your bacon in one fell swoop, it will be devoured within the first hour–and people who arrive later will be baconless (or sausageless).
I’d say it’s their fault for being late, but it’s actually nice to have a stream of people, so here’s what I do: I cook up half right away, and then cook the remainder throughout the party. It works.
Also: if you’re serving sausage, brown it the night before and then heat it right before you serve (you can pop it in the microwave). If you’re serving bacon, cook it in the oven! This will again create a need for careful timing, especially if you’re also baking a casserole.
I always serve some fruit–it feels healthy, it’s pretty, and it rounds out your menu. However, don’t go crazy. People aren’t there for their daily fiber. My tips:
- Buy fruit last, and buy according to what’s left of your budget. Apples: cheap. Strawberries: could get expensive.
- Buy whole fruit and cut it up yourself (the night before). Not only is it cheaper, but the fruit will last longer. Those plastic containers of pre-cut fruit may look pretty, but you never know how old they are–they can liquify by morning!
- For the ultimate in convenience, stick with strawberries or grapes. Wash, drain, serve.
If you can successfully manage the above categories, plus coffee and mimosas, you’re home free! However, if you’re not sure how many people are actually coming and want something extra, or if it’s a special event and you feel you need one more item to round out your table, here are a couple of suggestions:
- Breakfast Potatoes: easy to do ahead of time, a handy vegan, gluten-free option (Portland!).
- Yogurt Parfait With Granola: this is a showstopper, especially if you have a trifle dish or pretty glass bowl, but be warned, leftovers are not pretty.
I cannot stress how essential it is to have plenty of coffee on hand, and to have your coffee service set up ahead of time. This is not the time for a French press: you need a coffee maker. If you don’t have one, borrow one or get one at a thrift store!
I have an extra insulated carafe that, in an ideal world, I fill with a starter pot of coffee (fill with hot water first, then drain and fill with coffee) and then immediately make another, just to try to stay ahead of things. It sucks to be in the middle of frying donuts and then have to fight your way through a crowd to start another pot of coffee! Here are my other tips:
- Have your coffee service away from the kitchen, if you can–you’ll need the room. I set mine up on my sideboard, next to my electric three-compartment food warmer, an extra I love and use all the time.
- Set up cream, sugar, a small glass with spoons, and another small glass for dirty spoons.
- Lay out all of your coffee mugs. All of them.
As with coffee, I’d suggest setting this up away from the kitchen. We generally have ours set up outside on our porch. Not only is it nice to drink outside, but it’s a convenient place for people to drop off their sparkling wine. Here’s a simple way to do it:
- Set up a cooler filled with ice for champagne and orange juice.
- Have a table or other surface nearby for glasses and mixing.
- Put out a pitcher or two of water, as well.
Now I used to do Bloody Marys too, but it was a lot more setup with all of the garnishes, and frankly, people drank way more Mimosas. Adapt your game plan to your specific crowd, but the key to success here is simplicity.
Now cleanup is where I tend to fall down on the job. Don’t be like me: cleanup is much easier if you make it simple for guests to toss their trash and place their dirty dishes somewhere. My suggestions:
- Get a lidded trash can, put it in the dining area. Label it, if necessary!
- Have your sink empty, and let people know to put their empty plates, etc. in it.
- Try to start with an empty dishwasher, and run it as soon as it’s full.
This is something I’ve gotten much better at in recent years. I used to make way too much food, panicked at the idea of running out and depending on my recipes to tell me how many portions they contain. What I’ve learned is, typical recipe portion sizes are huge, compared to what people will actually eat, especially if you’re serving several items. So plan ahead by erring on the side of making less, but have an extra dozen eggs on hand in case you need to whip up some scrambled eggs.
If, despite your best efforts, you have a mountain of leftovers, have a plan in place to utilize them as efficiently and quickly as possible. Here are a few ideas:
- Send them home with people. Baked goods are portable–offer a road muffin to departing guests!
- Plan to eat them within a week. This works well if your leftovers are on the smaller side, and they’re things you like to eat.
- Portion and freeze them. This works really well for egg casseroles, coffee cake, etc. You can quickly defrost single portions in the microwave for weekday breakfasts, or even save them for future brunches (shhh!).
Beyond leftovers, you might have extra ingredients that need to be used up! For example, I had leftover bacon (how?) and two big bags of bread scraps from the Heart-Shaped Toasts I made–they’re going in a Strata this week. Google is your friend: simply enter all the ingredients you have on hand and add “recipe”–you’ll find something.
Phew! So this is how you serve brunch. Start small and simple, and get your processes down–it’s much easier once you’ve done it a few times, I swear. And then come back and let me know how it went!