FROM THE FARM: Celebrate Christmas with brunch

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump Record-Eagle food columnist Abra Berens.

Growing up our Christmas Day lunches were platters of cold cuts, fruit and cheese that often were picked up a couple of days ahead of the holiday and kept in the outside refrigerator (that’s what we called the garage that was warm enough not to freeze, but cold enough to hold the holiday extras). 

The platters were big, bountiful and nothing like our normally-offered fare. They seemed so special and such a holiday treat. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized this was my mom’s way of getting to enjoy the holiday morning. 

She loved cooking and put a lot of effort and time into most dinners including holiday meals, but on Christmas morning, she didn’t want to spend time sequestered to the kitchen, worrying about the roast coming out just right. Holiday meals became more show-stoppers when we were older and didn’t ask as much of her. 

My dad commented on the change the first year that she eschewed the cold cuts in favor of a smoked salmon soufflé. She relayed that she had a bit more time now that the children can care for themselves and wanted to try something new. It was in that exchange that I realized how much work she did to make the holidays special. I also realized that one of the keys to making entertaining work is to plan ahead and have a cadre of recipes that can be made in advance and held until ready. 

Brunch is the hardest meal for me to enjoy while entertaining. Inevitably I end up poaching eggs and making hollandaise and when I sit down with my plate, everyone else’s is already licked clean. The following recipes alleviate that problem of providing the setting for connecting with loved ones but not actually being in the room while it is all happening. 

The smoked whitefish soufflé is a take on that dish that my mom made ages ago. I haven’t found her original recipe but through some trial and error came to prefer the texture of the whitefish over salmon. And yes, it can be made the night before and refrigerated. I also love next day soufflés. Bake them when you have time and then simply rewarm. They will have deflated completely but are still very delicious. What you loose in the “Oooh Wees” of a perfect soufflé you make up for with the ease preparation. 

Many a celebratory brunch is graced by savory bread pudding. It can be constructed days in advance and baked while little ones are still sleeping. And, unlike quiche, there is no crust to manage. 

And for the person who has been setting the scene for your holiday get-to-gathers, maybe make the champagne punch and toast to their efforts. The base can be made for a week and add the sparkling wine just before serving. Any wine from Mawby will work great. I also really love the Tire Swing from bigLittle winery. 

Abra Berens is a farmer and chef who specializes in Midwestern food. She splits her time between the farm she co-owns, Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, and Chicago where she works as a chef. For more information about Berens and her farm go to

Smoked Whitefish Souffle

Souffles have a terrifying reputation. Look at them sideways and they collapse. Your next-door neighbor slams their door while they are baking and they collapse. And so on. I have found soufflés to be fairly stable despite their reputation. Soufflés made the night before will hold fine in the fridge. Yes try to avoid dropping it on the counter or moving it too vigorously but remember that you’re just trying to protect those bubbles.

Adding to the finicky reputation is the step of adding a bit of the whisked egg white mixture to the base and then gently folding in the rest. The point of this step is to prepare the dense soufflé base with the light and airy egg whites. The fist glob of whites mixed in thoroughly lightens the base and makes it easier to fold in the rest of the whites without breaking their bubbles. You’ll know to stop mixing when there are no more pockets of plain white. The soufflé won’t be a disaster if not fully folded, but those pockets of whites won’t taste as delicious as the sum of the all the parts.

1 small onion, diced

6 T. butter

1 t. chopped thyme

8 oz. smoked whitefish, picked

6 T. flour

2 c. milk

8 eggs, separated

¼ c. chopped parsley

½ c. grated raclette or parmesan

Heat oven to 375°F. Butter and flour a 2-quart soufflé dish being sure to knock out the excess flour. In a medium sauce pan, sweat the onions and thyme in the butter with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until soft but not browned. Add the whitefish, stir to combine and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the flour and cook until the flour smells toasty.

Stirring constantly, add the milk and cook until the mixture starts to bubble and is thick. Remove the pan from the heat. Combine the egg yolks, herbs and cheese. Add the yolk mixture to the milk mixture whisking to combine. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff. Add a big spoonful to the soufflé base to combine, then add the rest.

Pour soufflé into the prepared dish, reduce temperature to 350°F and bake until golden and puffy (about 50 minutes). Serve immediately with an acidic green salad.

Savory Bread Pudding

When I worked at Floriole Bakery in Chicago, the bread pudding was a weekend special that blew my mind week in and week out. There the savory bread pudding was made with leftover ham and cheese croissants. As I don’t often have left over croissants at my house, I’ve gone back to using bread. But this dish can easily absorb any and all vegetable or meat and cheese scraps. Be creative and just put things together that sound like they would work. My favorites are mushrooms, leeks, spinach, broccoli, shaved Brussels sprouts and on and on.

Sweet bread puddings are also an efficient, make-ahead brunch but this time of year, I have enough sweets in my life. No matter sweet or savory, just remember that bread pudding is all about the custard. You need more than you think to be a succulent eggy mass and not a dry bread brick.

1 stale baguette

10 eggs

4 c. half and half

2 t. salt

good pinch of nutmeg

1 t. black pepper

1 t. Dijon mustard

1 bunch kale, stripped and cut into ribbons

½ c. dried (or roasted and frozen tomatoes) cut into bites

2 c. grated cheese, cheddar, raclette, gruyere etc

ham or bacon if you like

Cut the baguette. Whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt, nutmeg, pepper and Dijon. Butter a large baking pan and then layer the cut bread, the veggies, cheese and meat if using to make a couple of layers of each. Pour the custard over the layers and sprinkle with a bit of the grated cheese. Cover with tinfoil and refrigerate overnight (up to 3 days).

Heat the oven to 375°F. Bake covered for 45 minutes then uncover and continue to bake until golden brown. To check for done-ness, take a small knife and cut into the center, the eggs should not run but be set like softly scrambled eggs. 

Holiday Champagne Punch

This is my favorite champagne punch recipe given to me by a new friend in Chicago. She serves it regularly for cocktail parties but because of the orange juice, I think it goes well with brunch in the morning too. The tartness of the cranberry juice helps keep it from being too sweet. Feel free to adjust the proportions to your own taste. It is also delicious with white wine if you prefer no bubbles.

1 c. orange juice

½ c. cranberry juice

1 t. honey

1 bottle sparkling wine

Mix the juices and honey together. Add the wine and distribute between the glasses. Serve with pomegranate seeds, red currants or frozen autumn olive berries in each glass.

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