This time of year, we can't get enough sunshine. And to many cooks, sunshine comes in the form of brunch: The meals are lighter, the colors brighter, the smiles wider.
Brunch is also an opportunity to put on a respectable spread without the busyness of the winter holidays. And since there's (theoretically) less stress, it's a fine time to try a new recipe or two. Luckily, there's a whole bouquet of new cookbooks — many from local authors — to inspire you to deviate from tried-and-true egg bakes or to kick your blueberry muffins up a notch.
But first things first: Kicking off brunch with sparkling beverages is a must. Mimosas are the go-to beverage, so why not lean into it with a mimosa bar? Don't feel beholden to Champagne; prosecco or cava — or ginger ale for a dry version — work equally well. From there, the mix-in options are plentiful and colorful: orange juice, pineapple juice, mango juice, pomegranate juice, guava juice; you get the idea. Nab some extras from the fruit tray for garnishes.
While guests are arriving, have a plate of muffins available to keep hunger at bay (bite-size muffins rarely disappoint). Minnesota author Amanda Rettke's new cookbook "Homestead Recipes" offers a Bakery-Style Blueberry Muffin that's sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
The main course gives cooks a chance to shine. But shining doesn't need to mean hours in the kitchen. One advantage of brunch is that much of it can be done ahead of time. Egg bakes and French toasts can chill, their flavors marrying during a well-spent night in the refrigerator. Duluth author Beatrice Ojakangas' "The Best Casserole Book Ever" has several recipes worth exploring. (Casseroles aren't just for weeknight suppers.)
But don't ignore fruits and vegetables. Offerings can be as simple as a fruit platter, or take a page from yet another Minnesota author's cookbook, "Emily's Fresh Kitchen Cookbook" by Emily Maxson, and pair bright, tart grapefruit with avocados and arugula for a salad that hits all the flavor notes. Vegetables can be peppered throughout egg bakes or served on the side. (Or, preferably, both.)
And while dessert may seem over the top, with everyone nibbling away at handfuls of jelly beans and chocolate, brownies topped with colorful seasonal candy is an excuse to sample the goods long before the Easter bunny needs to fill baskets.
From starters to sweets, here's a menu that can take the guesswork out of planning a springtime bunch. Or, like a kid on Easter morning, pick the ones that catch your eye now and save the rest for next time.
Bakery-Style Blueberry Muffins
Makes 15 muffins.
Note: "My secret to the softest muffin ever is the cake flour. It's actually a bit of a mystery muffin ... totally tender yet dense and flavorful," writes Amanda Rettke in "Homestead Recipes" (William Morrow, 2022). "You'll need to slow down on your first bite and really savor it. And then savor at least two more muffins because we're humans and we need to start the day off right."
For the muffins:
• 4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
• 3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature
• 1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
• 3 eggs, room temperature
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 c. cake flour
• 2 tbsp. buttermilk, at room temperature
• 1 c. fresh blueberries
For the crumb topping:
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed
• 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
• 1/3 c. powdered sugar
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two muffin tins with 15 cupcake liners.
To prepare the muffins: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, combine the cream cheese and butter on medium-low speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Gradually add the sugar and beat until the mixture is lighter and fluffier, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla. Add the flour all at once and mix until just combined. Reduce the speed to low, pour in the buttermilk, and mix until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Use the spatula to gently fold in the blueberries.
To prepare the crumb topping: Using a food processor or in a medium bowl with a fork or your hands, combine the cubed cold butter, flour and powdered sugar. Break down the butter into pieces no larger than the size of a pea.
To assemble the muffins: Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of batter to each lined muffin well; they will be about two-thirds full. Divide the crumb topping among the muffins. Bake for 27 to 30 minutes. The muffins are done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few crumbs but no wet batter clinging to it. Let the muffins cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Note: The bright grapefruit and creamy avocado complement each other impeccably well. The microgreens add an additional boost of nutrients, and the pistachios give it a delightful crunch. This salad is a beautiful accompaniment to any brunch, lunch or dinner table. From local cookbook author "Emily's Fresh Kitchen Cookbook," by Emily Maxson ($35).
• 2 ruby red grapefruits
• 2 ripe but firm avocados
• 3 c. arugula
• Olive oil for drizzling
• Maldon sea salt or other coarse sea salt flakes
• 1/2 c. microgreens
• 1/3 c. pistachios, roughly chopped
Using a sharp knife, trim off the ends of a grapefruit and place it with the cut side up. Cut off the rind and pith following the shape of the fruit, taking care not to remove too much of the flesh. Slice lengthwise between a section of the grapefruit and the membrane. Repeat on the other side of the segment. Repeat until all of the grapefruit segments are cut and removed. Repeat with the second grapefruit.
Cut an avocado in half lengthwise and remove the pit. Using a large spoon, scoop out the flesh of the avocado in one piece. Place the avocado with the cut side down on a cutting board and slice lengthwise. Repeat with the second avocado.
Place the arugula on a medium platter or in a shallow bowl. Arrange the grapefruit sections and avocado over the arugula, alternating between fruits. Drizzle olive oil over the salad. Sprinkle sea salt flakes over the salad and top with the microgreens. Sprinkle the pistachios on top of the salad before serving.
Note: From "Salad," by Janneke Philippi (Smithstreet Books, 2022), who writes, "For this salad, I like to look for young, thin, asparagus. There are a few ingredients here, so let them all shine; use your best olive oil and source a quality aged hard cheese.
• 1 1/2 lb. green asparagus
• 1/4 c. olive oil
• Handful of arugula
• 2 oz. aged hard cheese, such as pecorino, manchego or Parmesan
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Trim the asparagus. Heat the olive oil in two large frying pans. Divide the asparagus between the pans and fry on high heat for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the asparagus from the pan. (You can finish the salad now and serve it now, or let the asparagus cool for a salad at room temperature.)
Arrange the asparagus on four plates and top with the arugula. Slice the cheese, crumble it over the salads and top it all off generously with extra-virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
Broccoli Cheddar Tart
Serves 12 to 14.
Note: For this tart, author Lisa Steele says she likes to use a classic pâte brisée crust, but you can substitute your own recipe or a store-bought crust. Use a tart pan, a rectangular pan or a regular pie plate; she prefers a 4 1/2- by 14-inch tart pan with a removable bottom because that makes the tart easy to cut into thin slices. This recipe needs to be prepared in advance. From "The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook" (Harper Horizon, 2022).
Pâte brisée crust:
• 1 1/4 c. flour
• 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, cut into 1/2-in. cubes and chilled
• 1/4 c. ice water
Broccoli Cheddar filling:
• 5 eggs
• 1 c. heavy cream
• 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
• 3/4 c. shredded Cheddar cheese
• 2 tsp. flour
• 4 uncooked breakfast sausage links, crumbled, with skins removed
• 1/2 c. broccoli florets, chopped into small pieces
• 1/4 c. finely chopped onion
• 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
To prepare the crust: Add the flour and salt to a food processor. Add a few butter cubes at a time and pulse about 10 seconds, until the mixture forms coarse clumps. While the motor is running, slowly pour in the ice water and process until the dough starts to form a ball, about 30 seconds. You may not need all the water. Flatten the dough into a disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Chill for 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Roll out the chilled dough on a floured surface and press it into a tart pan. Chill for another 30 minutes. Once chilled, prick the bottom of the dough with a fork, cover it with parchment paper or aluminum foil, and add pie weights or dried beans on top. Bake until the crust is set, about 16 to 18 minutes, then remove the weights and parchment and continue to bake another 10 to 12 minutes, until the crust is lightly browned and nearly done. Then remove the crust from the oven and let it cool slightly while you prepare the filling.
Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.
To prepare the filling: While the crust is baking and cooling in the tart pan, whisk the eggs and cream in a small bowl, then season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. In a separate small bowl, toss the shredded cheese and flour.
Cook the crumbled sausage in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat until browned and crispy. Remove the sausage from the pan and drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Add the broccoli, onion, and garlic to the same pan and cook over medium-high heat until crispy and browned.
Arrange the sausage and vegetables on the crust and cover with the cheese mixture. Pour the egg mixture over the top, being careful not to disturb the vegetables and cheese. Bake 20 to 30 minutes until the middle is set and the crust is golden brown. Cover the crust with aluminum foil, if necessary, to keep it from browning too quickly. Remove the tart from the oven and let it cool slightly. Remove the sides of the pan and slice the tart into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Breakfast Potato Pie
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: This rather unusual dish is heaven for potato lovers. To keep the potatoes from turning brown after shredding, rinse in cold water and drain well. From "The Best Casserole Book Ever," by Beatrice Ojakangas (reprinted 2022, University of Minnesota Press).
• 1 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
• 1⁄2 lb. bacon, diced
• 1⁄4 c. finely diced green pepper
• 1⁄4 c. finely diced red pepper
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 8 large eggs
• 1 lb. russet potatoes, peeled and shredded (see Note)
• 2 3⁄4 c. shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1⁄2 tsp. pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 10-inch pie or quiche dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
In a medium nonstick skillet, cook the bacon until crisp; remove the bacon and set aside. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings. Add the pepper and onion and sauté over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until soft.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Stir the potatoes into the eggs. Add the bacon and the vegetable mixture. Pour into the prepared pan and spread out the mixture evenly. Top with the cheese and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until set.
Bundt Pound Cake
Note: The standard recipe calls for one pound each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour, with a pinch of salt and some vanilla bean paste if desired. This rich, dense cake needs nothing but a dusting of powdered sugar to serve as an elegant and satisfying dessert. It's also a way to use up a lot of eggs. From "The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook," by Lisa Steele (Harper Horizon, 2022).
• Butter and powdered sugar for the pan
• 3 1/2 c. flour
• 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
• 2 c. (4 sticks) butter, room temperature
• 2 c. granulated sugar
• 8 eggs, room temperature
• 2 tsp. vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
• Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center. Liberally grease a 10-inch Bundt pan with butter, then lightly dust with powdered sugar. Whisk the flour and salt in a small bowl.
Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and granulated sugar on high speed about 5 minutes, until light lemon-yellow and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the vanilla bean paste and scrape down the sides of the bowl one last time.
Reduce mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour mixture a little at a time until evenly combined. Spoon the thick batter into the prepared Bundt pan and smooth the top. Bake 55 to 60 minutes, until the top of the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Check after 30 minutes and if the cake is browning too quickly, tent a piece of aluminum foil over it.
Remove the cake from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then run a butter knife along the edge of the pan to release the cake. Invert the cake to cool on the rack, then slice and serve, dusting the slices with powdered sugar.
Happy Easter Brownies
Note: Easter is the best holiday celebration; it offers all the feel-good togetherness of Christmas, with less stress and more chocolate. This is a triple-threat brownie worthy of the event: a luscious chocolate base crowned with a layer of chocolaty fudge, finished with a scattering of chocolate eggs. It's rich, so serve in small squares. If you don't have superfine sugar, substitute granulated sugar. From "The Brownie Diaries," by Leah Hyslop (Bloomsbury, 2022).
For the brownie:
• 1 ⁄2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, chopped into rough cubes, plus extra for greasing
• 5 oz. dark chocolate (70% cacao), roughly broken into pieces
• 1 c. superfine sugar (see Note)
• 2 eggs, lightly beaten
• 2 tbsp. whole milk
• 1/2 c. plus 2 tbsp. flour
• 1/4 tsp. salt
For the vanilla fudge topping:
• 1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
• 7 oz. dark chocolate (at least 50% cacao), roughly broken into pieces
• 4 oz. milk chocolate, roughly broken into pieces
• 1⁄4 c. powdered sugar
• 2 tsp. vanilla paste or extract
For the topping:
• Whole chocolate eggs, broken up (a mix of sizes looks good)
• 1 c. multicolored mini chocolate eggs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8- by 8-inch square pan with a little butter and line with baking parchment.
Melt the butter and chocolate gently together in a medium saucepan over a low heat, stirring regularly. Stir in the sugar, take off the heat and set aside for 5 minutes or so, until a little cooler.
Add the eggs and mix in well. Stir in the milk, then sift over the flour and salt, and gently fold to combine. Scrape the brownie mixture into the prepared tin and smooth to the edges. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until set on top and there's very little movement in the pan. Leave to cool.
To make the fudge topping, put the condensed milk and both chocolates in a saucepan over a very low heat, stirring frequently, until melted together. Take off the heat and stir in the powdered sugar and vanilla. Spread over the cooled brownie; it will be very thick.
Check the temperature of the fudge topping by holding a finger lightly against it — by this point it should feel only just warm. Decorate with the shards of broken egg and mini eggs, very gently pushing them into the fudge. (If the topping still feels hot, let it cool briefly before adding the eggs.) Chill in the fridge for 2 to 3 hours, until the fudge has set. Serve.