Brunch At Jenn’s: Harvest Fest 2017

I took a look back through my incredibly short archives and realized the last time I shared a post about my annual Harvest Fest brunch was FOUR damn years ago.

I’m sorry, darlings. I won’t let it happen again.

Suffice to say, the amount of food I serve and my style of entertaining has…evolved a bit since 2013.

Just a little.

Let me walk you through the process of hosting a brunch, @TheJennC style. It starts at least three or four weeks earlier, when I look through my Pinterest and cookbooks and try to decide what dishes and drinks to serve. I mean, it’s brunch, so there will of course be mimosas and coffee. A nice fruit plate is also a must, as is my oven-roasted bacon sprinkled with brown sugar and chile powder, and the cheesy hash brown casserole that my friends (apparently) cannot live without.  From there it’s a matter of what type of breakfast pastry/pancakes/waffles/etc. I’m feeling and what type of egg dish I want to throw together. There’s also usually a “desert” of some type served, and the past few years I end up making a couple of batches of French macarons as well. No matter how ‘simple’ I try to keep everything, from beginning to end it does add up to a fair amount of work. But I love to do it, and would hate to stop.

One thing that helps me is taking a day (or more) off from work – this year I had Friday off and was able to sneak out of work a tad early on Thursday. I got home Thursday afternoon and immediately started cleaning up the kitchen to set up for the macaron making, which didn’t actually happen until about 9 o’clock that night because I’m a professional goddamn procrastinator.

Classic me.

So I had the macarons done and was off to bed around 2 o’clock on Friday morning. I had a couple appointments and some errands to run early and my parents were coming by to do some work around the house; dad is in the middle of putting a fresh coat of paint on the ceiling in the living room and kitchen and we also wanted to clear out some old junk from the basement. So I was back up around 6:30 to shower, dress, finish up the dishes from the night before and write up my grocery and to-do lists.

I’m a to-do list kind of girl, I think I’ve mentioned in the past. I have full on notebooks for my to-do lists. I can’t think before I make a to-do list. I make to-do lists of my to-do lists.

I like lists, people. Lists are my thing. I list out everything I have to do that day before I can go to bed, then I list out everything I need to do the day of and the time I need to start the task (or have it completed) from the second I wake up until the second the food hits the table (yes, even showering and getting ready). It’s incredibly helpful to me to see everything I need to get done laid out and keeps me on task.

So, off to my appointments, grocery shopping, etc. and back to the house just a bit before noon on Friday. My dad was already at the house working, and I got straight into Cleaning Frenzy mode. I cleared the stuff up out of the basement that I wanted to leave for garbage collection and did the little cleaning around the house that I could while my dad had all his painting paraphernalia strewn about. He finished up and was out of my hair a little before 3, and I ran back out to the store to find the one thing I still needed that I couldn’t find at three other grocery stores earlier that day. (Yes, I was successful)

I returned home, finished all my cleaning with the exception of the floors, and moved on to prepping the little bit that I could for the next day. This included making the french toast casserole and a chocolate sauce, brewing up some coffee to chill in the fridge overnight, and getting my serving dishes, utensils, and decorations out.

Don’t ask what time I took that photo Saturday morning Friday night.

Off to bed for another four or five hours of sleep, and back up at 6:00 to shower and dress, and I was downstairs right around 7 am to get started.

The first thing I did was stir together the Chicory Coffee Milk punch and put it in the freezer to set for three hours. This is one of the recipes I found in my copy of Brunch at Bobby’s and it’s amazing. It’s supposed to freeze up and get slushy, but mine didn’t get so much slushy as super ice cold. I served it over ice and it was perfect. Boozy, creamy, a tad sweet, it gave my brunch a nice hint of southern charm. Look for it in an upcoming Cocktail Friday post!

Onto the hash browns. I’ve been making this slow-cooker version of Cracker Barrel’s famous hash brown casserole for a couple of years, and when I didn’t mention that I was making it for my New Year’s brunch this past January I could hear the pouts via text message, so I know it’s a must-have for every brunch at my place. (Yes, I ended up making it for New Year’s too. Spoiled-ass friends.) This creamy, cheesy casserole is super easy to make, and ready to serve after cooking on high for about three hours. I could have stirred it all together and had it ready to go the night before, but I had ZERO room in my refrigerator for it, so I opted to throw it together in the morning.

Then I made the batter for these Mini Pumpkin Churros, the recipe for which I also found in Brunch at Bobby’s. I thought they would be a perfect sweet companion to a fall brunch. I did not, however, stop to think about the amount of work it takes to fry a bunch of mini churros right before you’ve got a houseful of guests coming over, so if you’re hosting by yourself or don’t have a trusty assistant, I’d suggest trying those out another time.

You will thank me (and Bobby Flay) when you make them, though. Crispy, sweet, pumpkin perfection. The orange-chocolate dipping sauce makes a perfect companion.

By this time it was very close to 9 am, and I was expecting guests around 10, so I had to start hustling. I pre-heated the oven and started to prep my bacon. For 8-12 guests I buy two pounds of bacon and I usually end up with about two pieces left, if any. Line two baking sheets with foil, place a rack on each sheet and lay the bacon out on the racks. Sprinkle bacon with brown sugar, chile powder, and fresh cracked black pepper. Roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes and serve.

Magic.

Before I put the bacon in the oven, I had to bake the Texas French Toast Bake. I’ve always been super skeptical about french toast casseroles – I don’t like super soggy french toast to begin with, and those make ahead casseroles always struck me as such. I had this french toast bake a few months ago for a breakfast pot luck at work, and loved it. It’s perfect – not super “eggy”, with a touch of crisp on the bottom. This one’s definitely in the rotation.

Now I was getting down to the wire. I grabbed my macarons out of the fridge to take the chill off, and started to warm up the chocolate sauce for the churros. Everything else was baking, warming, or chilling, and I still had a floor to mop and tables to set. So I did the quickest round of Swiffer-ing ever and set up my tables and kitchen island for serving.

For parties like this, I always use disposable plates, cups, and utensils, just to make clean up easier. I like to buy “nicer” disposables, but disposables nonetheless. I found that cute little blackboard to use as a menu board in the dollar section at Target, and some greenery (leafery?) at my local grocery store, along with decorative gourds, motherf*ckers.

The little fake pumpkins were from Target, along with the colored/wrapped led lights. The serving plates I’ve had for a few years; you can always find really nice ones at Marshall’s/TJ Maxx and the like.

Back to cooking! I started the oil for my mini churros, took the french toast bake out of the oven, upped the oven temperature and started the bacon. I grabbed my fruit from the fridge, rinsed what needed to be rinsed, and started cutting up the pineapple.

In between batches of churros, I plated up the fruit.

Pineapple, mixed berries, and concord grapes. I used my large cutting board simply because all my other platters were too small.

The first of my guests started arriving at this time, so I snagged the bourbon/coffee/cream goodness out of the freezer and placed that out on the table I had set up for the plates and such, along with the juice and bubbly for mimosas, and the Bloody Mary fixings my friends brought with them.

The macarons were vanilla-raspberry and pumpkin spice-cinnamon bourbon. Yes, I can make macarons. No, I will not be writing about it any time soon, because I don’t have them perfected just yet.

Crunch time. More people arriving, more things to finish. The churros were popping out left and right, and the more I made the more I realized…I didn’t need this many damn churros. So I stopped frying them up about half way through the batch of batter (Note to self: make half the amount next time), and moved on to more pressing issues, mainly plating the bacon and starting the cheesy scrambled eggs.

Super easy. Whisk up a whole bunch of eggs, scramble in pan, add cheese, serve.

And there you have it! Everything was a big hit, I had a super fun day with some of my very favorite people, and I think I’m almost recovered from the lack of sleep and day drinking.

Some tips for your next brunch:

Start planning early. Pre-buy your booze, dishes, utensils, and decorations.

Hit up Aldi or another discount grocery store for your essentials, and then go to the fancy grocery store for the specialty items.

If you need to clean your house (like I always do), start early in the week to avoid last minute/late night speed cleaning (like I always do).

Set out extra chairs/tables/etc. the night before. Set out dishes and decorations too.

Pre-make and prep what you can the day or night before.

Get out of bed a half an hour before you think you need to.

CLEAN AS YOU GO. Start the morning off with an empty sink and dishwasher to avoid a back up in the sink.

Always take help from your friends when they offer, even if it’s just to clean the fruit or grab a dish from the cabinet.

Sit. Drink. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. And leave the dishes for Sunday.

Philly Cheese Steak Rolls

Okay, so here’s that recipe I promised you almost a week ago.

I’m terrible at this, aren’t I?

But I’m really good at some other things, so it evens out. Kind of.

Anyway, these are the cheese steak roll ups that I made for my birthday game night last month. They were super easy to make and really tasty. You can make them ahead, freeze them and bake them whenever you need them too.

What you’ll need:

Thin sliced or shaved steak (see below – you can usually find it in the frozen meat section), frozen puff pastry sheets, a good sized onion, sliced bell or banana peppers (or both, depending on preference), sliced american or provolone cheese, one egg, and some sesame seeds (again, your preference). To season the meat mixture I used salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and a little bit of Dijon mustard.

Set frozen puff pastry out to thaw for about 30-45 minutes. Peel the onion, cut it into halves or quarters and slice thinly. Saute onion in 2 Tb olive oil until softened and slightly browned (Add sliced bell peppers – if using – and cook until soft). Cut the shaved steak into bite sized pieces and add to pan, saute with onions until just cooked through. Add salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard. Stir together and set aside, letting cool slightly.

Whisk the egg with a tablespoon of water in a bowl to make an egg wash. Roll one sheet of puff pastry out with flour into an approximate 12 x 16 rectangle. Pile approximately one half of the meat mixture down the length of one end of the dough. Top with sliced banana peppers (if using),

And then the sliced cheese.

Roll meat and pastry tightly end to end. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds (or poppy seeds, or caraway seeds…you see where I’m going here. You can also go seedless if you prefer). Repeat with the remaining puff pastry and meat mixture.

Rest on a baking sheet in the refrigerator for an hour to set. This step isn’t a necessity, but it will allow the pastry to slightly firm back up and make slicing the roll much easier. If you have the time, rest it; even for a day or two, as long as it’s wrapped in plastic.

To bake:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice rolls into 12 slices; about 1 inch thick. Bake on a lined cookie sheet 10-12 minutes, then flip and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the pastry is nicely browned.

Serve warm with some marinara sauce on the side.

And watch them disappear.

Philly Cheese Steak Rolls

  • 1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 package shaved steak, chopped fine
  • 1 medium to large onion
  • 1/4-1/2 cup (or more) sliced banana peppers (if desired)
  • 1/4 – 1/3 lb sliced deli cheese of your choosing
  • 1-2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1-2 tsp Dijon Mustard
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 Tb Olive oil
  • sesame seeds, for sprinkling

Slice the onion thinly and add to a sautée pan over medium heat with olive oil. Sautee until lightly browned and add chopped steak. Cook until just browned, add salt and pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard. Stir together and set aside.

Roll out one sheet of thawed pastry on a flour-topped counter with a rolling pin. Pile one half of the meat mixture down the length of one end of the pastry. Top with sliced banana peppers and cheese, and roll from meat to other end tightly. Repeat with other sheet of pastry, remaining meat mixture, peppers, and cheese.

Whisk egg in a bowl with 1-2 Tbs cold water to make an egg wash. Brush egg wash over rolled pastry and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Set rolls on baking sheet in refrigerator for at least an hour to over night.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice roll into 12 1-inch slices and place on to lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes on one side, flip, and bake an additional 5-10 minutes, until the pastry is browned and the cheese is melted.

Remove from baking sheet onto serving platter, and serve warm with a side of marinara sauce.

Enjoy!!

 

 

 

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Birthday Game Night, Complete with Snacks

I celebrated my birthday a couple weeks ago in my usual fashion – an all-night rager at a local club that didn’t end until the local police showed up.

Kidding. I actually just hosted game night with some of my favorite people. I love a good game night party – it’s super informal, you just need a few finger foods, a big bowl of popcorn, a plate of cupcakes and plenty of booze.

This year I knew I would be out of the house most for of the day leading up to the party and therefore wouldn’t have a ton of prep time so I came up with a super simple menu – a couple parts make ahead, one part crock pot, and one part big old bowl of stove-popped popcorn. I’ll start with the dips – I stirred together a spinach dip and served it with some cut up veggies, pretzels and store-bought pita chips.

Always a classic. If you don’t know how to make a spinach dip by now… Here you go.

I also served something that became a new favorite this year, Mexican Street Corn dip. A friend of mine served it at a Cinco de Mayo party and I bugged her for the recipe immediately. I think I’ve made it four times since May. The recipe calls for you to stir everything together on the stove but I just throw it all together in the crock pot and let it rip for an hour or two, it’s perfectly gooey and melty, plus it stays warm throughout your whole party.

Ugh. It’s so good. Serve with lots of tortilla chips. It reheats fantastically, too.

I made some stovetop garlic parmesan popcorn as well. Just pop the corn, melt some butter with some cracked peeled garlic cloves, allow to infuse, drain and pour over the popped corn, and sprinkle some fresh grated parmesan cheese on top.

That was the easy-peasy, throw-together-at-the-last-minute stuff. The make ahead stuff was easy too, but just a tad more time consuming so I started the night before.

I made these Chocolate Hazelnut cupcakes with a toasted bourbon meringue frosting, because they sounded rich, decadent and delicious and it was an excuse to use my food torch so OF COURSE I was going to make them.

Mine didn’t come out quite as pretty as the original recipe (I don’t think I gave the meringue enough time in the mixer), but I enjoyed them immensely.

As a sort of “main dish” to all this finger food, I was in the mood for something cheesesteak-y. Let’s be honest, when am I not in the mood for something cheesesteak-y? Cheesesteak anything is amazing. But for my birthday I decided to dress it up just a tad in some puff pastry. Roll, slice, bake, done.

I’ll give this a full write up in my next post, because I’m getting a little long winded here, and I just wanted to share birthday goodies before September is over. I’ve got a few other recipes waiting for write ups, and Harvest Fest brunch is coming next week! I’m still working out my menu for that but I think it’s going to be a good one. I’m so excited for fall and what the rest of this year brings!

But for real in the meantime? I might need to make the cheesesteak rolls again. Yum.

 

Entertaining: Birthday Game Night, Italian Style

So someone around here is celebrating a birthday this week.

Spoiler alert: It’s me.

Tomorrow I turn 40 years old. How in the crap is that even possible? It feels like just yesterday I was in middle school, high school, graduating from college, buying my house. Even though I am 40, I don’t feel like I’ve aged much. Sure, I definitely look older than I did when I moved to the Lehigh Valley, but I feel as if I’m still figuring things out. I see friends my age and people I attended high school with on Facebook talking about their kids going to middle school or high school, and most days I don’t even feel responsible enough to have two cats. Adult Level: I honestly have no idea what I’m doing.

Looking back on my life, there are many things I’ve missed the boat on: a “normal” college experience, finding my life’s true calling, a rewarding and fulfilling career, marriage, kids…you get the picture. I don’t really feel like my life is missing anything, but to know that I’m sort of at my midway point and haven’t accomplished as much as many of my peers, I feel…I suppose inadequate is one way to put it? Only sometimes. Other times I’m damn proud of the things I’ve done and who I am.

But I’m not trying to live my life in comparison to others. I’m not that insane. And when the hell did this post get so deep?

Right. Anyway, birthday! We celebrated Friday night with food, beverages, and our usual game of Cards Against Humanity.

Because we’re terrible people. 

Since a couple of my friends were scheduled to run in a marathon this weekend I figured they would want to carb-load to prepare (or whatever it is those runner types do), and I was in the mood for Italian, so pasta was the perfect choice. I made this recipe for a penne with vodka sauce that I saw on Barefoot Contessa a couple weeks back. I have my own version of penne with vodka, but the way this sauce was made intrigued me – cook the onions and garlic, add one cup of vodka (dang, Ina) and cook down, add crushed tomatoes, then roast the sauce in the oven for 90 minutes before adding the cream and pasta. It was pretty damn tasty, but I honestly don’t know if the additional roasting time made that much difference in the end.

I wouldn’t not make it again, I just don’t know if I would go to all that trouble every time I want penne with vodka sauce.

In addition to the mountain of pasta I made (because of course I doubled that recipe, because my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother would disown me if I didn’t cook for double the amount of people I was hosting), I served a simple garlic bread (roast a whole head of garlic in the oven, blend with softened butter, add parmesan cheese/salt/pepper, spread on bread, bake until crispy)…

and a caprese salad with store made pesto instead of the normal fresh basil. Seriously, if you don’t have a ton of homegrown basil at your disposal, get the pesto from the Mediterranean bar at Wegmans. It’s totally banging.

A squeeze of bottled balsamic vinegar glaze makes it perfect.

To finish off the meal I baked an Italian cream cake and I’d go into detail but this beauty totally deserves a post of its own.

Perhaps tomorrow. Look at that, it’s my birthday, and you’re getting the gifts!

Party Time: Birthday Tapas Night

A while back, I hosted a combination birthday/game night party for one of my good friends. I had been wanting to do tapas-style food for a while, and I figured a birthday celebration would be the perfect opportunity. I got the inspiration from a novel I read, of all places – the main characters go to Spain, blah blah blah, I won’t bore you with specifics – but the description of the food sounded incredible. There is also a popular tapas-style restaurant in the area that I got a few ideas from. I researched some recipes on Pinterest and ended up putting together what was (in my humble opinion) one of my tastiest menus in recent memory.

We start with Albondigas, or meatballs in spicy tomato sauce. These are a staple at most tapas restaurants, and with good reason. Tender, flavorful meatballs, browned and simmered in a spicy red sauce. I served some pieces of fresh baguette along side of them, perfect to soak that sauce all up. This recipe makes a ton of meatballs, and I made the mistake of doubling it. For four people. Eating albondigas for a *week*, I was. Without complaints.

Next up was something the birthday girl spied amongst all my pinning, and left a comment along the lines of, “YES PLEASE,” underneath it. How could I refuse?

These Chorizo and Puff Pastry Bites with spicy dipping sauce were definitely a good choice. The recipe itself is not complicated, but the construction was a tad frustrating for me. Mine obviously do not resemble the ones in the picture that accompanies the original recipe, but I’m fairly certain they tasted just as good. I was worried about using raw chorizo and puff pastry together — if the pastry would cook faster than the chorizo, etc. —  and while a few of them did get a little “well done” on the bottom, I think they came out fine. I would perhaps flip them halfway through baking, or roll the chorizo out a little thinner before assembling.

To compliment everything I threw a couple noshy bites together as well — I wasn’t particularly thrilled with any of these and could have absolutely omitted them given the amount of people I was hosting this time around.

See? Kind of…meh. On top are some roasted chick peas, bottom right marinated olives, and bottom left sweet & spicy roasted almonds. I know for next time to focus on the main dishes and not bother with the stuff that people (including myself) will barely touch.

While I was planning the menu it became apparent we were going to need a non-meat option. But I was not about to sully all of this Spanish magnificence with some lame veggie plate, oh heavens no. So I came up with this, which will soon have its own post complete will full recipe:

Smoked paprika roasted cauliflower bites with roasted garlic aioli. Dudes. This was AMAZING. One of my guests was, by his own admission, not a “cauliflower fan”, nor does he like any kind of creamy, mayonnaise-based sauce, but this? He couldn’t get enough of. I couldn’t, either. I would have been happy with just cauliflower for dinner that night, honestly.

But then I would have missed out on this (brace yourselves, vegetarians).

I mean.

Garlic Brown Sugar Flank Steak with Chimichurri. So moist, so tender, so full of flavor. And the chimichurri on top of it was such the perfect compliment for the meat. (Side note: how have I never made chimichurri before? More chimichurri in my life, please.) I *need* to make this again, and soon. I might play around with it a little and turn it into kabobs. I’ll never tell. Okay, maybe I will.

To compliment all of this food I served three different kinds of wine, a Spanish Rioja, a tasty Fume Blanc from Sonoma, and a bubbly Spanish Cava. It’s not a party without something sparkling.

Lest I forget, we of course had dessert. Because how can you have a birthday without cake? I was planning on a showstopper of a cake; three layers of lemon chiffon, with tart lemon curd in between, all covered in strawberry swiss buttercream. In my head, it was magnificent. In person, however…

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 9.28.45 PM

HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA. It tasted damn good, at least.

That Long-Overdue Oscar Party Post

So this post has been…a little delayed, but I still wanted to talk about my Oscar party, because a friend of mine took such nice photos for me and it seems such a shame not to share them.

See? Thanks, dude. You’re my official party photographer from now on.

This is about the fourth or fifth year that I’ve hosted an Oscar party, and it is hands down my favorite to plan. I’m always trying to make or do something different than the year before, and this year was no exception. I tend to go with finger foods for my Oscar parties — just a tad more upscale than your run of the mill chicken fingers and pigs in a blanket. Not like caviar or foie gras on toast points, but something different and fun. Another factor this year was the necessity for a few make-ahead dishes. Thanks to an overnight shift at Job 2 the night before, I made a conscious effort to cut down on the amount of work I would need to do on the actual day. It’s smart to do this any time you’re entertaining, but it was a necessity for me this time around.

For my “main” offering, I (with the help of my friend Sara via text), came up with Mediterranean style sliders with all the fixings.

I used regular ground beef for the patties, adding garlic, onion, parsley, montreal steak seasoning, and some traditional kufta spices — allspice, coriander, and a tiny bit of cardamom and cinnamon. I served the sliders with mini pita rounds (OMG SO CUTE), and toppings like sliced plum tomatoes, caramelized onions, homemade tzaziki sauce, store bought harissa, and some homemade dakkous, a mild spiced tomato sauce, so kindly made by Sara. (Side note: I also had some crumbled feta to go with these, but totally forgot to put it out when the time came. We didn’t miss it.)

These were fun and super tasty and I will be making a regular burger sized version of them this coming summer, you mark my words.

My next offering was a tasty nibble I found via Pinterest, these sweet and spicy chicken/bacon bites. Diced chicken, wrapped in bacon, rolled in a brown sugar/spice mixture and baked. Easy to assemble, a great make-ahead option (I would not roll them in the spices until you’re ready to bake though), and just damn delicious. A hit all around.

I might need these again soon. For the protein, you know.

Because I can’t host a party without something on top of a slice of baguette, I threw together these crostini with sun-dried tomato jam and herbed goat cheese, an old favorite of mine. The tomato jam is better when you make it a few days ahead of time, and all you have to do to serve is toast the bread slices, stir a little fresh thyme into softened goat cheese and have at it.

I assembled mine a little differently than Giada did hers, but I won’t tell if you won’t.

Not pictured: Requisite crudite tray, because vegetables are boring. 

One thing I’ve started to do when entertaining is to offer a signature cocktail. Instead of assembling a full bar (which, let’s be real, my tiny kitchen is not equipped for), I serve just one main drink alongside a couple basic spirits, beer, or wine. This time around I crafted a pear sangria, made from pear juice, white wine, and a touch of St. Germaine. Fresh sliced pear to garnish.

Boozy! Careful with that one, it’s dangerous.

Along with our savory finger foods, I also served up some small(ish) desserts to finish up the evening. The first, which there’s no photos of because they were the last thing I served and we were all stuffing our faces full of sliders and bacon wrapped chicken deliciousness at that point, were my peanut butter tandy cakes. Always a hit.

Next were some white chocolate dipped strawberries. Simple, pretty, and…healthy? Mer. Maybe a little.

Also cute.

My final dessert was the result of seeing something on Pinterest and adapting it to suit my own cravings. I saw these mini cheesecake cookie cups and thought they would be perfect, but at the time I was planning this shindig I was craving lime. Specifically, key lime…anything. So I nixed the cherry pie filling from the original recipe, whipped up some key lime curd instead, and voila. Key lime cheesecake cookie cups. Big name. Tiny dessert. Freaking YUM.

Seriously, these might warrant a post of their own in the future.

Until then, I am working on ideas for my next party. Which is next week, so I might post about it by September.