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A Winter's Brunch
By Lisa Zwirn

Who doesn't love to be cooked for in the morning? In fact, breakfast lovers may have a day dream that goes something like this: You're in a quaint bed-and-breakfast, nestled, perhaps, in the mountains or on a promontory overlooking the ocean, on a chilly winter morning. Seated in the inn's cozy, sunlit dining room, you're wrapped in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and just-baked pastries. A smiling face brings you a tender omelet accompanied by crisp bacon and a basket of warm muffins and homemade croissants. Or maybe the plate holds a stack of hot-from-the-griddle buttermilk pancakes topped with fresh raspberries and real maple syrup. Yes, it's a dream (or an infrequent reality), but why not make the fantasy come true for good friends or family?

You can host a brunch even if you're not a morning person. With a menu that allows you to complete most of the work the day before, you can roll out of bed an hour before your guests arrive. There's no need to get stuck making individual omelets or eggs Benedict for eight people if you, too, want to enjoy the meal. Instead, opt for one dish, cooked at one time, so everyone can sit down together.

A strata is a convenient do-ahead brunch dish because it benefits from a good rest, preferably overnight, in the refrigerator. Named from the Italian word, strati, which means "in layers," a strata is a savory oven-baked pudding made of layers of bread and almost any combination of vegetables, cheese or breakfast meat. Cooked vegetables such as zucchini, mushrooms, spinach and bell peppers work especially well. Cheeses such as Italian fontina, Brie, cheddar or crumbled goat cheese add delicious flavor, as do meats like bacon, ham and sausage.

Because the strata is rich, a simple green salad is the perfect partner. And for dessert, help your guests forget that it's cold outside with a tropical fruit salad topped with toasted coconut and mango sauce. Buttery almond shortbread is a nice accompaniment for the fruit.

If you've never hosted a brunch before, be prepared for your guests to arrive hungry. Plan to offer something to nibble on while the strata bakes. Keep it simple, though, nothing fussy. A light crabmeat salad presented on endive leaves will sufficiently whet your guests' appetites. And there's no need to serve coffee right away; the first-thing-in-the-morning coffee drinker will have already had his. Instead, offer a cocktail or mugs of hot apple cider or mulled wine. This brunch, an elegant meal for your guests, yet surprisingly easy to prepare, may end up being the dream by which they judge all others.

Menu

Kir royale
Crabmeat salad on endive
Portobello mushroom strata with Fontina cheese
Spinach salad with bacon
Tropical fruit salad with toasted coconut and mango sauce
Almond shortbread