Chef John Ash serves up some delicious ideas for a festive brunch

Apparently, the first use of “brunch” - a playful blend of “breakfast” and “lunch” - happened back in 1895. Guy Beringer, a British writer, authored a piece called “Brunch: A Plea” in Hunter's Weekly. He urged people to gather for a late breakfast on Sundays, not necessarily for the food but for the convivial experience.

Beringer had high hopes that the mash-up meal would bring together the best of both worlds.

“By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers,” he wrote. “It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk- compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

That may have been a bit of an exaggeration. But there is no question that brunch has become a solid part of our culinary tradition in America.

Some historians have derided the meal as simply an excuse for drinking. Well, maybe so. Famous brunch drinks, including Mimosas, Bloody Marys and of course, Champagne, have all become associated with the brunch tradition.

I, for one, love the idea of brunch and, if it is an excuse to have a good glass of Champagne or a California sparkling wine, so be it.

I agree with Beringer that brunch does help us slow down and is a great excuse for being with family and friends, which is so hard to do during the rest of our busy weeks.

Here then are some ideas for you to serve at your next brunch gathering this holiday season and beyond.


This recipe was adapted from the “Cafe Beaujolais” cookbook by Margaret Fox of Mendocino.

Buttermilk Cinnamon Coffee Cake

Makes 12 servings

21/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup white sugar, preferably organic

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg beaten

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt, cinnamon, ginger, both sugars and oil. Remove 3/4 cup of this mixture to a separate bowl, stir in the nuts and set aside to use as a topping.

To the remaining batter, add the baking soda, baking powder, egg and buttermilk. Mix to combine all ingredients. Small lumps in the batter are OK.

Pour the batter into a well-greased 8- by 8- by 2-inch deep baking pan or dish. Sprinkle the topping mixture evenly over the surface. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Remove and let cool.


Traditionally, eggs Benedict uses Canadian bacon. Here we are using smoked salmon. According to “The Food Lover's Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst, the dish originated at Manhattan's famous Delmonico's Restaurant when regular patrons Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict complained that there was nothing new on the lunch menu. Delmonico's maître d' and Mrs. Benedict began discussing possibilities, and Eggs Benedict was supposedly the result.

Classic Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict

Makes 4 servings

- Hollandaise Sauce (recipe follows)

2 teaspoons vinegar

4 large eggs

2 English muffins, fork split in half

- Softened butter

5 ounces or so sliced smoked salmon

- Optional garnishes: dusting of paprika and fresh salmon roe

Make the Hollandaise sauce and keep warm. Poach the eggs by filling a 10-inch skillet with water at least 1 inch deep. Add vinegar and bring to a simmer. Break the eggs one by one and carefully slide them into the water around the edge of the skillet, which will help keep the eggs together. Poach for 3 minutes or so or until the whites of the eggs are just set. You want the yolks to be runny. Alternately, you can add the eggs, turn off the heat, cover the skillet and let them sit for about 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the English muffin halves and lightly spread with butter.

To serve: Place a muffin half on 4 warm plates, top each with the smoked salmon, a poached egg and a big dollop of hollandaise. Garnish if you like with a sprinkle of paprika and/or fresh salmon roe.

Easy Blender Hollandaise Sauce

Makes about 1 cup

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

3 egg yolks

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over moderate heat. Place the egg yolks, lemon juice and mustard in a blender and pulse 2 or 3 times to combine. With the blender running slowly, add the hot butter in a thin stream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add more lemon juice if you'd like. Keep warm.

Note: If the sauce curdles or “breaks” (separates), you can correct by whisking in a teaspoon or two of boiling water, a drop at a time. If that doesn't work, put another egg yolk in a bowl and very slowly whisk in the broken sauce. Usually it'll come back together with one of these two methods.


This is a great salad for the winter months because it takes advantage of seasonal ingredients. To make it more of a substantial course, drape some paper-thin slices of prosciutto or coppa around the plate.

Fennel, Pear, Persimmon and Toasted Pecans Salad with a Fig Vinaigrette

Makes 6 servings

3 cups mixed savory greens such as arugula, watercress, tatsoi, endive and/or radicchio

1 firm Fuyu persimmon, sliced thinly into rounds

2 ripe pears, sliced in wedges with cores removed

1 small bulb fresh fennel, sliced thinly

- Fig Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

1/2 cup pecan halves, lightly toasted

Arrange greens, persimmons, pears and fennel attractively on plates, drizzle over some fig vinaigrette and top with pecan halves.

Fig Vinaigrette

Makes about 1 1/4 cups

1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried figs

1 1/2 cups apple juice or cider

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme (1/2 teaspoon dried)

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

4 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

- Salt and pepper to taste

Combine dried figs and apple juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 6-8 minutes or until liquid is reduced by a third.

Pour fig mixture into a blender and puree. Pour into a mixing bowl. Whisk in all other ingredients and season with salt and pepper. Thin if desired with apple juice. Store covered and refrigerated for 3 days.


The crepes for these blintzes can be made a couple of days ahead. Stack them on a plate, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. You also can completely make the blintzes ahead and store refrigerated, well covered with plastic wrap for up to 3 days.

My Grandmother's Cheese Blintzes

Makes 6 servings

3 large eggs

1 1/3 cup milk

2 tablespoon melted butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

- Vegetable oil spray

- Butter for the pan

- Cheese filling (recipe follows)

Add the eggs, milk, melted butter, salt and flour to a blender and blend until smooth. Let the batter rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

Heat an 8-inch nonstick crepe or omelet pan over medium heat and spray with oil or wipe with an oil-soaked paper towel and a bit of butter to very lightly coat. Pour a scant 1/4 cup batter into the hot pan, wait a couple of seconds and then tilt the pan in all directions to make a thin crepe that comes up the sides of the pan.

Cook until the surface of the crepe is dry and edges release easily with the tip of a knife or spatula. It'll only take 20-30 seconds. Turn the cooked crepe out onto a plate and repeat until you've run out of batter. You should have at least 12 nice crepes, plus a few.

Fill the crepes with a heaping tablespoon of the cheese filling, then fold the top and bottom, followed by the sides, over the filling to enclose and make a compact package. Store seam side down in the refrigerator until ready to cook. Place a skillet over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Add a bit of oil, melt in a bit of butter and fry the filled blintzes for 5 minutes or so on each side until they are golden and crisp. Serve hot with any of the suggested toppings.

Cheese Filling for Blintzes

1 1/4 pounds drained whole milk ricotta or farmers cheese

1 large egg, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons finely grated orange zest (use a micro plane)

1/3 cup chopped golden raisins or dried cherries

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Suggested toppings for blintzes: crème fraiche, sour cream or slightly sweetened Greek yogurt; fresh seasonal fruits of any kind; powdered sugar; powdered cocoa; maple syrup; fruit syrups; reduced balsamic vinegar or drops of lemon juice


Stratas are basically savory bread puddings. You don't need to do a lot of prep or planning because they are an ideal place to use up whatever you have in your kitchen. Stratas are also a great make-ahead dish. They taste best when you make a day ahead and let the custard soak into the bread overnight before baking.

Here's how to construct a strata (which means “layered” in Italian) as well as a recipe suggestion:

Select the baking dish: I like to bake mine in a 9-inch by 13-inch deep baking dish or pan, but you also could bake in individual 8-ounce ramekins.

Select your bread: You'll need 10 to 12 slices of 1/2-inch thick bread. Use something good and artisan if you have it, which could be challah, multi-grain, brioche or ciabatta. It's even better if it's a day or two old. You can also cut the bread in 1-inch cubes and toss them with the custard and fillings, but I like the layered method better.

Select the fillings: You'll need 2 1/2 cups of freshly grated cheese. Vegetables could include 2 to 3 cups of roasted red peppers, sautéed mushrooms and sautéed spinach. For meat, use cooked and crumbled bacon, sausage or ham.

Make the custard: Use 10 large eggs and 1 quart of whole milk, whisked together with 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg and/or 1 teaspoon dry mustard. Season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Assemble the strata: Layer half the bread on the bottom of the buttered baking dish, cutting it to fit snugly. Spread all filling and half the cheese evenly over that, then top with remaining bread, cut to fit snugly. Pour the custard over and finish with remaining cheese. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Cook the strata: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Uncover strata and bake for 60 minutes or until mixture has puffed a bit and is golden brown on top. Shake the dish a little; the center shouldn't shimmy. Tent the dish with foil if the top is browning too quickly. Place on a rack and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Bacon, Fontina, Mushroom and Sun Dried Tomato Strata

Makes 8 servings

10 slices of your favorite bread, cut 1/2 inch thick

- Butter for coating the baking dish

6-8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

2 cups sliced mushrooms, browned in butter

1/2 cup drained and chopped sundried tomatoes in oil

2 1/2 cups freshly grated Fontina, Gruyere or other semi-soft cheese

10 large eggs

1 quart whole milk or light cream

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon dry mustard

- Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Layer half the bread on the bottom of the buttered baking dish, cutting it to fit snugly. Combine the bacon, mushrooms and sundried tomatoes and spread this evenly over the bread along with half the cheese. Top with remaining bread, cut to fit snugly.

Whisk together eggs, milk, nutmeg, mustard and salt and pepper to taste and pour over the strata. Top with remaining cheese. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Uncover strata and bake for 60 minutes or until mixture has puffed a bit and is golden brown on top. Shake the dish a little to check; the center shouldn't shimmy. Tent the dish with foil if the top is browning too quickly. Place on a rack and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.


Zabaglione (Italian) or Sabayon (French) is a simple but delicious dessert or brunch dish that is made at the very last minute and served warm. It's like a soufflé without all the effort. Serve in a pretty glass with fresh berries.

Champagne Sabayon

Makes 4 servings

7 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

- Pinch of salt

3/4 cup sparkling wine or Champagne

2 tablespoons kirsch or orange flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier (optional)

2 cups or so fresh berries of your choice

Beat the yolks, sugar and salt until light. Place mixture in a heatproof bowl over (not touching) simmering water and whisk in the sparkling wine and kirsch. Continue whisking and turning the bowl until the mixture mounds and quadruples in volume. There should be no liquid visible and the mixture should be thick with the consistency of whipped cream. This will take 3 minutes or so. Spoon on fresh berries and serve immediately.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food House.” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website,

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