Saturday, March 6, 2010

breakfast at a civilized hour, or how to cook bacon for a crowd of forty

I have mixed feelings about breakfast.

Despite my efforts to live on a "normal" schedule, I still cling to the inveterate night-owl's belief that mornings are bad and evil and best dealt with by sleeping through them. Though I like breakfast foods (cold cereal aside), my pleasure is marred by the fact that I have to be awake at an ungodly hour to consume them.

Brunch, however, is a different matter. Brunch is breakfast at a civilized hour, the domain of Eggs Benedict, Belgian waffles, and buttermilk pancakes drenched in maple syrup.

By all rights, I should have reserved my seat at ONCE Brunch as soon as the e-mail hit my inbox. And yet, when I went to write a reply, what came out was not "Reservation for one, please; I'll mail out a check ASAP," but "Brunch! Do you need minions?"

Apparently the fun of cooking eggs and bacon for forty people is enough to make me overlook the detail of having to be awake at an ungodly hour to do so.

Which is why, at ten-fifty am on Sunday morning, instead of being in bed and dead to the world, I'm standing in the tiny kitchen of our event space in Somerville, frantically fork-splitting a platter of homemade English muffins. Frantically, because we're a little behind; fork-splitting, because taking a knife to an English muffin is the fastest way to ruin its delicate texture.

By your average brunch standards, homemade English muffins are already impressive, but JJ is taking things a few steps further, using them as a base for truffled eggs, Ascutney cheese, and house-cured bacon in what she's described as "the world's best breakfast sandwich." (McDonald's, eat your heart out.)

Although I have no doubt that they're going to be spectacular, I'm also hoping that the first guests, who have started to trickle in, will focus on the other dishes first. You see, I can't assemble the sandwiches until we have all the components, and while the cheese is grated, we're still working on the truffled eggs and bacon.

Fortunately, we have no shortage of other dishes. There's JJ's ginger granola, faintly sweet and a little spicy, with homemade kefir and supremed Florida grapefruit. We have mini morning glory muffins, cinnamon-scented and full of fruit. And Trevor (the man responsible for our homemade bacon and sausage) has also come up with a wonderful cured bluefish, which we're serving in thin, delicate slices on brioche with red onion and a mint-cilantro yogurt sauce.

(Droolworthy photos are over at LimeyG's writeup.)

Over at the griddle, Anthony is turning out fluffy stacks of buttermilk pancakes that are just waiting to be soaked in maple syrup, and Arun has whipped up an enormous bowl of Indian-spiced potato and sweet potato homefries. We have fair trade organic coffee, and I notice that many of our guests have taken JJ's exhortions to heart, and have indeed brought sparkling wine to mix with our freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice for mimosas.

I'm just starting to wonder if there's any extra coffee when Jack tips a truffled egg omelette on the cutting board I have ready and signals that the bacon's good to go. Coffee will have to wait.

We set up an assembly line: muffin half, piece of omelette, sprinkling of cheese, piece of bacon, muffin half. As soon as we fill a serving platter, Emily whisks it away to start serving our guests. Once all the sandwiches are assembled, I take a brief moment to clear some of the dishes from the sink, and wipe down the baking sheets so that we can make more bacon.

Space is tight in this kitchen, and we spend a lot of time doing our best to stay out of each other's way. There are frequent exclamations of "Behind you!" and "Hot, hot, coming through!" as we move sizzling bacon to serving platters and refill the coffee press with boiling water. We're also offering eggs to order, and Jack, our egg man, has his hands full with requests for scrambled and poached and over easy.

Although this meal doesn't have the time crunch of the typical ONCE dinner because there's no plating involved, we're going to be busy making more bacon and more coffee until our guests indicate that they're full. When we leave today, everyone is going to smell of bacon grease.

While I wait for the final batch of bacon to come out of the oven, I track down a cup of coffee, fashion a sandwich from a slice of brioche and some leftover omelette and cheese, and snag a saucerful of homefries. The crew are all nibbling and trying not to be too conspicuous about it. (The morning glory muffins are particular favorites because of their small size, and possibly because they contain booze-soaked raisins.)

Our guests, from what I can see, are enjoying themselves. Part of the buffet is set up on the kitchen island, and so we're getting some feedback from those who come up for more muffins or a refill on coffee. The general consensus is that a ONCE brunch was an excellent idea, and the home-cured bacon is spectacular. We're all glad to hear it.

With the coffee supply holding steady, and the meal winding down, the only task I have left is dishes. It occurs to me that I am not going to smell of bacon grease so much as I am going to reek of bacon grease. The baking sheets are liberally coated; I have to figure out some way of getting them cleanish. (They just need to be clean enough to transport - they get properly cleaned back at ONCE headquarters.) The best solution ends up being to pour off as much of the grease as possible into an empty container, wipe down the tray with a paper towel, and then wipe down with a soapy sponge.

Once the dishes are tackled and the tables cleared, we round up the leftovers. The breakfast sandwiches were, predictably, demolished, but we've got plenty of morning glory muffins and granola, and a whole extra filet of cured bluefish, which JJ offers to any interested takers. (There are several. We divide it.) We sit for a while with coffee, unwinding and discussing what was good and what could be improved, before loading up the cars to head back to ONCE headquarters.

From ONCE headquarters, I head back home, bluefish, muffins, and a package of granola safely stowed in my backpack. It might be just my imagination, but I think I catch a few of the people on the bus sniffing the air and looking puzzled.

If only they were to ask me. I could tell them I've been cooking bacon for a crowd of forty.


~~louise~~ said...

Well Kudos to you Adele! I can't even imagine being responsible for such an event. It sounds like everything was a hit and that's what's important.

I hope you got to sleep late this Sunday:) If you get a moment, pop on over to my blog. There's something there for you, if you want it:)

Thanks for sharing...

adele said...

Louise - I wasn't responsible for the event (I'm not that crazy) - just the bacon. :)

And I did get to sleep late this Sunday.

I'll be sure to drop by your blog. I'm intrigued. :)

Lindsey @ pickyeatings said...

I can't imagine cooking eggs for 40. Also, I totally thought that photo of eggs was a photo of cadbury mini eggs...guess we know what I'll be buying this afternoon.

adele said...

Lindsey - Thankfully, not all forty guests wanted eggs to order.

Enjoy your Cadbury eggs!

librariane said...

Mmmmm... I love brunch and your description of the whole event is marvelous!

I've been seeing a lot of homemade English muffin recipes lately, so I may have to give in and make some.

adele said...

librariane - I've been thinking of making English muffins myself. It's a strange dough (almost slimy), and they're a little tricky to cook, but the results are fantastic.

Joh said...

I'm not sure how you held it together without coffee. I don't think I have EVER uttered the phrase "coffee can wait". You're amazing.
Also, I'm with you. Brunch is the only civilized way to eat breakfast.

adele said...

Joh - I had coffee *before* we began. Coffee during was just reinforcement. :P

JJ Gonson / Cuisine en Locale said...

Adele, I don't know how this didn't get to me sooner, but THANK YOU, both for the writing and for being willing to get up early on Sunday to do drudge work and reek of bacon
I was the one who failed to have coffee that day, and you all were champs!
We're doing it again on Sunday the 21st... perhaps this time you want a seat

Tracy said...

Your vivid description is delicious! Thank you.

adele said...

JJ - You're welcome! Can we persuade Trevor that he wants to take that bacon to small-scale production? :D

Tracy - You're welcome!