Autumn Weekend Brunch

If I took all the sweet, warm, comforting flavors of the fall season and combined them into a single weekend breakfast, what would it look like?

Pumpkin, maple, cinnamon, apples, pecans…it was a chorus of autumn voices singing across this plate!

Yes, I believe it would look a lot like this pumpkin challah French toast, stuffed with a cinnamon-y sweet and creamy maple-mascarpone filling and topped with a warm apple and pecan relish. I couldn’t resist throwing this over the top, given the surprise outcome of the sourdough pumpkin challah I made last week. The maple spice swirl inside the braided round loaf inspired me to repeat those flavors in a “go big or go home” recipe. The result is this French toast—with a luxurious, custard-like center, spiked with maple and spice and everything nice, and topped with a fresh apple and toasted pecan relish for a contrasting texture and bite.

Is it decadent? You bet. Sweet? You cannot imagine. And the only way to bring harmony to such a sweet and creamy brunch item is to serve it with a fall-inspired cranberry-cider mimosa. The prosecco bubbles, plus the tart and tangy flavor of the cranberry are welcome relief to so much richness.

Welcome back, Autumn! We’re so glad you’re here. 🙂

I’ll describe how I made this, but of course, I already had the sourdough pumpkin challah, which is not easy to find. If you enjoy baking bread, you might consider making your own. Or, to replicate the big autumn flavors in this dish, I’ll offer suggestions that allow you to use a regular challah or brioche, either of which should be much easier to get your hands on from the bakery department of your supermarket. My posts are meant to inspire, and however that happens at your house, enjoy!


Ingredients

4 large slices challah or brioche, slightly stale* (see notes)

3 oz. mascarpone*

2 Tbsp. maple cream*

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

3 eggs

2/3 cup whole milk* (see notes for pumpkin adjustment)

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

pinch of kosher salt


*Notes

Challah and brioche are similar “eggy” breads—each has a light and delicate crumb, and both are perfectly suited for French toast, including this recipe. The primary difference is that brioche is made with butter and challah (being a popular Jewish bread) is frequently made with oil. Leave the slices unwrapped overnight, as the stale texture will force them to better absorb the egg mixture.

Mascarpone is an Italian-style cream cheese, but a bit richer and denser. I buy it in small tubs at Trader Joe’s. Regular cream cheese would also work fine in this recipe.

Maple cream—oh, sweet wonderful maple cream! This delightful confection is pure maple, but in a different form from syrup. It’s made by heating the syrup then whipping until it’s a spreadable texture, similar to peanut butter. It is positively decadent. If you cannot find it, substitute about 1 tablespoon maple syrup.

If using regular bakery challah or brioche, reduce milk to 1/2 cup and add 1/4 cup pure pumpkin puree to the egg mixture before soaking.


Instructions (a.k.a. “feast your eyes”)

  1. Using a handheld mixer, whip together the mascarpone, maple cream and cinnamon until smooth and spreadable.
  2. Spread maple-mascarpone mixture onto two slices of the challah or brioche, then top with remaining pieces to make two “sandwiches.”
  3. Whisk together eggs, milk, pumpkin (if using), vanilla and salt. Pour some of the mixture into a flat glass baking dish and place the filled sandwiches in the egg mixture. Drizzle the remaining mixture over the sandwiches and turn several times for about 20 minutes until most of the mixture has been absorbed.
  4. Heat a skillet or griddle over medium-low heat. When it’s evenly heated, place sandwiches on the griddle and cook until the underside is golden brown. Turn sandwiches over, taking care not to allow the top piece to slip off. Cook until the second side is golden brown.
  5. Serve warm with maple syrup, or go crazy and make the warm apple-pecan relish (below).

For warm apple relish topping:

To this point, pumpkin has enjoyed all the attention in my autumn-inspired brunch. But apples have equal star power this time of year, and this is their cue to step in and share the spotlight. This chunky topping provided textural contrast and flavor to the soft and creamy french toast.

1 medium firm apple, chopped into bite-sized pieces

1 tsp. fresh lemon juice (to prevent browning)

2 Tbsp. chopped toasted pecans

1 Tbsp. maple sugar (or syrup)

1/4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon

Squeeze lemon juice over apple pieces in a small microwave-safe bowl and stir to toss. Microwave for 30 seconds, just long enough to warm and slightly soften the apple bits. Stir in pecans, maple sugar (or syrup) and spice.


For the cran-cider mimosa

This brunch cocktail was exactly what we needed to slice through all the sweet, rich flavors of the French toast. If you prefer, you could easily adapt this to non-alcoholic by substituting selzter or ginger ale for the prosecco. My suggested amounts are for one cocktail.

2 oz. chilled apple cider (I used spiced cider from Trader Joe’s)

2 oz. chilled cranberry juice cocktail

2 oz. chilled prosecco or other bubbly (champagne, seltzer, ginger ale)


Layer ingredients in a champagne flute just before serving the French toast.


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Fresh Broccoli-Apple Salad

The word “salad” can mean a lot of things, depending on the generation during which the recipe was introduced. For example, in the 1960s or ’70s, a “salad” could have been anything from an iceberg lettuce-based dish served ahead of dinner to a molded concoction of sweetened gelatin, cottage cheese, marshmallow or who knows what.


Blame our parents, if you need to, for those atrocities. But this salad is a real salad—vegetables, fruit, dressing—everything you want to complement what you’re serving for dinner in these modern times, especially if what you’re serving is coming off the grill.

Broccoli comes to us from the brassica family of vegetables, kin to brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, to name a few. Some of these veggies carry a slightly bitter flavor, but here’s a tip to knock it down: give it a quick swim in boiling water (only for a few seconds), then shock it cold again in an ice water bath. Not only will you strip away some of that bitter flavor, you’ll also see the broccoli transform to a much brighter green color. Be sure to drain it well before proceeding with the salad, so the dressing doesn’t get watery.

We love salads at our house, but my husband, Les, isn’t wild about broccoli by itself. A salad that features broccoli along with other flavors and textures is a great compromise, and he liked it. His son, Alex, has been with us for meals at least once a week since his return home from Europe at the start of the pandemic, and he announced at dinner that this dish has “all my favorite things in it.” I’m counting that a double success!

This dish is crunchy, cold, fresh and—despite the slight sweetness—still packed with nutrition. Approximately 6 servings.


Ingredients

2 broccoli crowns, washed (about 4 cups worth)

2 medium carrots, peeled and shredded

1/2 cup red onion, chopped

1/2 cup golden raisin-dried cranberry blend, soaked briefly in hot water to plump

1 granny smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped

Juice of 1/2 lemon

3 slices thin bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled (this is optional)


If the dressing seems familiar, you might be remembering my creamy cole slaw a few months ago. It’s pretty much the same, repurposed for a different type of salad.

This dressing works for all kinds of summer salads!

Dressing Ingredients

1/4 cup light mayo

2 Tbsp. whole milk

2 Tbsp. buttermilk

2 Tbsp. lemon white balsamic* (or white wine vinegar or lemon juice, but double the sugar)

1 Tbsp. cane sugar

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/8 tsp. white pepper

Freshly ground black pepper


Instructions

  1. Dip the broccoli crowns very briefly into gently boiling water, then shock them in ice water and drain. This helps remove any bitter taste, and also brightens the color. You can skip this step if you don’t mind the slight bitterness of broccoli.
  2. Trim leaves from broccoli crowns and cut up into small bites. You can chop the broccoli if you’re in a hurry, but I like to have cut off whole pieces rather than “crumbs” of broccoli. My general rule of thumb for bite size is this: If a piece is large enough to completely cover a quarter, it’s too big, so I’ll cut it in half.
  3. Combine broccoli pieces with onions, plumped raisins, carrot shreds. Toss the apple pieces in the lemon juice to prevent browning. Add them to the salad.
  4. Combine all dressing ingredients and whisk until smooth. Pour over salad and toss to evenly coat. Refrigerate a few hours to allow flavors to mingle.
  5. Scatter crispy bacon (if using) over salad just before serving.
The crispy bacon adds a nice touch of salty and smoky on this hearty summer side.

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Pork Chops & Applesauce

Thanks to the classic Brady Bunch episode in which young Peter tries to imitate Humphrey Bogart, I can hardly imagine eating pork chops without applesauce. My husband, Les, and I recently had an online happy hour with some friends in Raleigh and we were shocked to learn they had no recollection of the episode. Just in case you missed it as well, this should help provide a little context, and, in honor of Father’s Day, some good advice from one of America’s favorite TV dads about the importance of being yourself.

With or without the pop culture reference, there’s no question that pork chops and applesauce make a great combination. They were a frequent menu item at my grandmother’s house for Sunday supper. The applesauce was always homemade, as my grandparents had a small tree in the side yard that was prolific with small, greenish apples during the late summer. She’d send me and one of my cousins out there to pick up apples that had fallen, and she’d wash them and cut out any bad spots, then throw them into a pot—peels, cores, seeds and all. When they were cooked and tender, she’d scoop them into her Foley food mill and call in the kids to crank the handle. The food mill had a spiral blade that pressed the cooked apples through a mesh strainer, while keeping all the unwanted peels and parts behind. We’d sweeten it to taste and flavor it up with cinnamon, and it was just about the best thing ever. To this day, my cousin, Brad, and I are convinced that these adventures laid the groundwork for our passion for food.

I found this image on Etsy, and its very similar to the Foley food mill my Gram used to make her applesauce.

As much as I’d love to have Gram’s Foley food mill, I must admit that Les has found another really easy way to make homemade applesauce from scratch, and I’m grateful that he’s willing to make it several times a year on request. We always have some on our Thanksgiving table, and if we time it right, enough leftover to enjoy on latkes during Hanukkah. All you need is a slow cooker and a potato masher, and of course, fresh apples.

Gram usually did her pork chops in a cast iron skillet with a simple gravy, but I’m elevating them today with a quick and easy brine. We want to enjoy them on the grill, and the brine ensures the meat will stay moist and flavorful. I’ll top the chops with the easiest chutney you’ve ever heard of, and it really pulls the whole meal together.

Doesn’t this look schwell? 🙂

Ingredients – the pork chops

4 bone-in loin end pork chops

1 cup coarse kosher salt (do not use iodized table salt)

1 cup brown sugar

1 Tbsp. black peppercorns

1 Tbsp. dry mustard powder

2 cups apple cider vinegar

3 cups ice cubes

For chutney:

1 medium onion, halved and sliced lengthwise into crescent shapes

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

3 Tbsp. homemade applesauce

1 tsp. apple cider vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

The brine recipe has been my go-to since I first saw Alton Brown make it on Food Network. Brown sugar and dry mustard bring a terrific balance of sweet and savory. If you wanted to echo the apple flavor, you could swap in some apple juice or cider in place of some of the ice, but I usually use it exactly as ordered. Don’t brine your chops longer than two hours, or they will be too salty.

Instructions for brining

Heat the cider vinegar in a small sauce pan until hot.

In a large glass bowl, combine the salt, sugar, peppercorns and mustard powder. Pour in the vinegar and stir to dissolve the other ingredients. Give it 10 minutes to mingle the flavors, then add ice cubes and stir until they are melted. If brine isn’t completely cool, refrigerate before proceeding.

We ordered extra thick chops from our favorite local butcher, so we only used two. Use a heavy plate to help keep the chops submerged in the brine.

Place the pork chops in a gallon size zip top bag and pour the brine over them to cover completely. Squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the bag and refrigerate for two hours. I usually place the zip bag inside a container large enough to hold the brine, just in case the bag springs a leak (which is always possible when using bone-in meats). Turn the bag over halfway through brining time for more even flavoring.

Ingredients – the applesauce

9 large apples*, peeled, cored and cut into chunks

1/2 cup brown sugar (either light or dark)

Juice of 1/2 large lemon*

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

*Notes

Consider mixing together a few different varieties of apple, for more interesting flavor. Choose apples with a firm texture, such as Granny Smith, honeycrisp or fuji. Varieties with a “mealy” texture, such as red or golden delicious or McIntosh, are not the best for applesauce.

The lemon juice helps to prevent browning of the apples as they begin to cook and soften, and the acidity gives a nice tart balance to the sweetness of the applesauce. In a pinch, a couple teaspoons of bottled lemon juice can be substituted here, but fresh is always better because it’s pure and doesn’t contain weird preservatives.

Instructions

You’re going to love how easy this is!

Place all apple chunks into the slow cooker, toss chunks in the lemon juice and sprinkle the brown sugar and cinnamon. Give it a good stir to mix everything up and cook on low setting for about 8 hours or overnight.

In the morning, use a potato masher to break up any pieces still large enough to stand out. We enjoy having a few chunks, but that’s just how we roll. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate.

Instructions – the pork chops and chutney

Remove chops from brine mixture, rinse under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.

A quick sear on both sides helps seal in the juices, then nice and slow to finish them.

Grill the chops. Les seared them for 30 seconds on both sides, then reduced the grill temperature to low, cooking to medium well (about 150° F). I know we’ve all been told that pork must be cooked all the way to well done, but this is OK because they will continue to cook during a 5-minute rest inside.

Make the simple chutney. I sautéed the onions in olive oil until they were softened and lightly caramelized on the edges. A quick seasoning of salt and pepper, and at the last second, I opted for a quick shake of dried thyme leaves. Then, stir in applesauce and cider vinegar. Mix until heated through.

I sauteed the onions until they were tender with a bit of char on some of the edges.
Some of Les’s applesauce and a splash of cider vinegar makes it seem like this topping was cooking all afternoon.

This chutney will connect the dots between the savory pork chops and the sweet applesauce—an easy little Comfort du Jour twist to a classic “pork chopsh and appleshaucsh.”

I’m loving those perfect grill marks. The quick “chutney” pulls everything together to elevate our simple Sunday supper!

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So delischioush!!!