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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Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict

The most traditional food associated with the Kentucky Derby is a “hot brown sandwich,” classically prepared on toasted brioche, with roasted turkey, tomatoes, bacon and an elegant Mornay sauce. Like every recipe, there are thousands of versions out there. Mine is a little bit of a twist, in that I’ve transformed it into one of my favorite brunch options—a Benedict.

Here’s something else I want to share: last week, my aunt offered to send me some of the Depression glass and vintage dishes that my grandmother owned before she passed away last summer. The dishes arrived just in time for my Kentucky Derby preview party, and that makes this all the more special to me.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Straight up, I’ll admit this is kind of a fussy recipe, not for the faint of heart in the kitchen. But if you love the journey of delivering up a photo-worthy dish, I hope you’ll pour some champagne (or a Sparkly Britches Cucumber Lemonade) and give it a try. My egg poaching skills aren’t top-notch, but I’m going to teach you an easy way to “cheat” through it for an end result that’s every bit as pretty. And don’t let the “Mornay” scare you—honestly, it’s just a fancy way to say “cheese sauce,” and it’s very easy to make. Read through the instructions before you begin. This recipe makes two individual Benedicts.

Ingredients – The Mornay

1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour
½ cup milk
2 oz. grated or shredded Gruyere cheese (or substitute Swiss)
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg (or about 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg)

Ingredients – The Benedict

1 English muffin, fork split*
2 slices bacon, cut in half
1 Roma tomato, cut crosswise into 6 slices (about 1/4” thick)
2 Tbsp. chopped sweet onion
2 oz. very thinly sliced deli turkey—about 1/3 cup packed, cut into shredded pieces
2 large free-range eggs
Snipped fresh chives for garnish
Mornay sauce

*not a fan of English muffins? Throw caution to the wind and serve this on a fluffy Southern biscuit!

Tools

Small saucepan
Small whisk
Microplane (optional, for grating nutmeg)
Cheese grater (or use microplane)
Skillet for cooking bacon
Additional skillet (optional)
Spatula or turner
2 custard cups (or small teacups) for separating eggs
Small mesh strainer (optional)
Tea kettle
Small (7”) non-stick skillet with tight (preferably glass) lid
Additional small lid for keeping eggs warm

Instructions – The Mornay

In a small saucepan, heat 1 Tbsp. salted butter until melted and bubbly at edges. Add 1 Tbsp. flour and whisk to combine. Cook until mixture changes appearance and bubbles throughout. Add milk and whisk until fully blended. Keep over medium heat until bubbling and thickened. Grate fresh nutmeg into the sauce, then add grated gruyere cheese and a pinch of salt, whisking until smooth. Turn heat to warm setting while you prepare the other items.

Instructions – The Benedict

Cook the bacon strips to desired doneness and set aside on paper towels. Load your English muffin halves into the toaster so it’s ready to go at plating time.

Pour off bacon grease and wipe skillet clean to use for the next step. Or, heat a second cast-iron pan or griddle over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add about 1 Tbsp. olive oil and add onions, tossing to caramelize. Pile the onions into the middle of the skillet, and place the tomato slices around the outside. Cook the tomatoes until both sides show signs of caramelization (those gorgeous little charred spots is what you’re going for here).

I grilled the Roma tomato slices just long enough to warm and caramelize them. My husband snapped the pictures, and caught me here in mid-flip. Nice camera work, Babe!

Move the tomatoes to a plate or cutting board to avoid burning them. Add the chopped deli turkey to the onions and toss to warm and caramelize the edges. Turn off the heat and set aside for plating. It’s about to get fussy in here.

If you already have a preferred way to cook poached eggs—well, you’re my new hero! Although I completely love poached eggs on any restaurant brunch menu, making them at home wears my patience pretty thin. I’m going to show you my “cheat” method of steam-poaching eggs, and it works great for me. Do what works for you.

First, turn on the heat under your tea kettle, or run some very hot tap water into a measuring cup with a pour spout. You’re going to need hot water for this process.

Crack one egg into a custard cup. Place a small mesh strainer over a second cup and gently roll the egg into the strainer, allowing some of the egg white to drain through to the extra cup. An egg white actually has two distinct parts—the firm white, which is the pretty part, and the loose and runny white, which leaves unappealing shaggy edges on a poached or fried egg. We’re getting rid of the runny white part so the egg steams more cleanly. If you don’t have a mesh strainer, or if you’re not a stickler for a pretty plate, you can skip this step. But this is a fancy-schmancy brunch dish we’re making, so I’m doing it. Besides, I can burn more calories later if I have a sink full of dirty dishes.

Discard the runny white, then do the same with the second egg, keeping each egg in its own cup.

Drop the English muffin to toast it. Whisk the Mornay. Sip champagne. Breathe.

Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Carefully pour about 1/4 cup hot water directly into the empty skillet. It will sputter and perhaps even seem to boil, and this is good! Gently slip the first egg onto the boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid. Allow the egg to cook for about 1 minute, and watch for a light film to form over the yolk. With a rubber spatula or wide spoon, gently remove the egg to a plate lined with a paper towel. Cover with another lid to keep it warm while you prepare the second egg.

Plating:

Place a small spoonful of the Mornay in the center of each serving plate, to help keep the muffins from sliding around. Next, smear about 1 Tbsp. of sauce over the top of each toasted muffin half, then top each with the turkey-onion mixture, the tomato slices, a generous drape of Mornay sauce and a poached egg. Sprinkle with snipped chives and top with the cooked bacon slices, placing them cross-wise for optimal image to impress your guest.

This Benedict looks fit for a millionaire! If you listen closely, you might be able to hear Gram say, “Well, isn’t that elegant?”

Perfect.

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