It probably began as a lazy little plan when somebody wanted to sleep late on a Sunday morning. It made sense to invite a few friends over for an indulgent meal of dishes that seldom were served during the week due to lack of time. After the guests had gone, there would still be plenty of time for personal pursuits.
It's easy to see why the idea of brunch -- a combination of the words for breakfast and lunch -- was born and increased in popularity.
Brunch is not as modern a concept as you might think. Brunches were begun in the late 1800s, originally called company breakfasts. In August 1896, the English magazine Punch wrote that brunch was "introduced ... last year by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct 'Hunter's Weekly,' indicating a combined breakfast and lunch," which was probably served just after guests returned home from a morning of hunting. The article went on to say, "To be fashionable nowadays, we must brunch," so literary and artistic circles began playing host to sumptuous affairs of many courses.
The United States didn't become "fashionable" until the 1930s, when the idea of brunch took hold. Restaurants and hotels jumped on the bandwagon and inaugurated mile-long buffet lines crammed with multiple food stations.
Customers became known as "pilers." One look at their plates and you could see why. Customers picked up the large white plates stacked at one end and walked up and down the royal spread, building astonishing edifices of crepes, blintzes, waffles, pancakes, a bonanza of egg dishes, cooked and cold cereals, meats, shellfish, smoked salmon, cheeses, potatoes and grits, sweet and savory breads, muffins, desserts, fresh fruits and juices.
The difference between a brunch and breakfast, then, becomes quickly apparent. Breakfast is a hurried affair of toast or cold cereal, with early-morning headlines for company, and hot coffee sipped during the hectic commute to work.
Brunch, on the other hand, is a more indulgent affair, even casually elegant, served in a relaxed atmosphere with friends and family members prepared to dine on rich and hearty fare. Even those who have trouble looking squarely at an egg at 6:30 in the morning will enjoy the tastes, textures and aromas of a leisurely brunch offered during the more reasonable hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Brunch should include highly satisfying, even extravagant, dishes, a time when the contemporary desire for "light" is ignored. Cooks who don't want to stand over a hot stove and custom-design omelets and flip pancakes for a crowd can choose uncomplicated, make-ahead dishes, so there is plenty of time to enjoy guests.
If you are slightly deficient in the cooking department but would still like to offer hospitality to friends, plan a cereal bar. On the table arrange an assortment of fresh-cut fruit, juices, bowls of hot cereal, as well as three or four boxed cereals, bagels and cream cheese, and store-bought coffeecake.
To avoid getting up at the crack of dawn, a brunch cook can plan ahead. The night before, set out all the dishes and pans you'll need. Either prepare biscuits, muffins and scones ahead and reheat them the next day, or mix the dry ingredients together the night before.
For omelets or frittatas, chop vegetables and refrigerate in separate containers or plastic bags. Shred cheese. Wash, peel and cut fruit such as melons, pineapple, orange slices, grapes and berries before arranging a platter and refrigerating.
Set the table. Add a holiday centerpiece or sprigs of holly or poinsettias. Put condiments -- butter, jams, syrups -- in their own dishes. Chill juices. Take out serving platters and utensils.
The main dish itself can also be completely prepared ahead of time to reduce the chaos of brunch entertaining.
The recipe above has this attractive quality. Overnight Oven French Toast is made with raisin bread and scented with cinnamon and maple syrup. It is assembled the night before and goes straight from the refrigerator to the oven the next morning.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
Overnight Oven French Toast
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons butter
8 slices raisin bread, each 1 inch thick
4 egg whites
1 1/2 cups milk
1 / 4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
Butter large, shallow baking pan. Arrange bread slices in single layer.
In large bowl, beat together eggs, egg whites, milk, granulated sugar, cinnamon, syrup, vanilla and salt. Pour mixture over bread and then turn slices to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Next morning, remove plastic wrap. Bake at 400 degrees until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Turn bread over and bake until golden, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer cooked toast to warm plates and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
-- Adapted from 500 Treasured Country Recipes, by Martha Storey and Friends, Storey Books.