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Tips and Tricks for an Intimate Holiday Brunch


I’m used to smaller holiday gatherings already—4-6 people is the norm for me, as my family isn’t that big—but the holidays may be different for many this year. There are still ways to make it as special as possible, even if it’s a smaller group than usual that you may be entertaining.

Brunch is probably my favorite thing to make for the holidays. It’s easy, delicious, and doesn’t leave everyone with a stuffed-feeling that typically comes with eating dinner late in the day by the time all of the cooking is done. What you serve, or how you serve it, can also help elevate the experience to make what you are eating feel even more special.

Continue reading for fun ideas for a Christmas weekend or New Years Day brunch for two or a small group.

Smoked salmon with bagels

I wasn’t always on “team smoked salmon”—as a teenager, I hated it. I came around again to it and now I really enjoy it, though. Along with cream cheese, my favorite bagel toppers with smoked salmon are thinly sliced red onion, capers and mixed herbs. Arugula, cucumber, or a squeeze of lemon are other choices, too, and if in-season, sliced tomato can also be nice (truthfully, tomato is my least-favorite on a smoked salmon bagel.)

One of my favorite tips for entertaining that I adopted many years ago, no matter how many people I had visiting, was to go with a family-style approach of serving: food served in ways that are meant for sharing, typically with larger platters, plates, and bowls.

It also works for small gatherings, too. This platter, for example, has been one of my favorites for years: it’s a long rectangular plate, about 18″ long by 8″ wide, that came from Crate and Barrel, perfect for a gathering of two to four people. These days, you can also consider making individual plates, or just be mindful of serving the platter with extra utensils at the ready: small tongs, seafood or regular forks, and serving spoons all included.

For this platter that I made for Mother’s Day brunch in 2016, I served garlic-herb cream cheese spread with smoked salmon and various toppings. The spread, when thinned out more with milk or cream, is also good to just have as a dip for veggies. Any leftover herbs from making the dip can find a nice home on the platter, too (mint, basil, dill and parsley were all included here.)

I have also used vegetable or scallion cream cheese from a local deli, or chive and garlic whipped cream cheese from the grocery store. Scoop any of these into a bowl and stir in herbs or fresh ground black pepper to make it look nicer for entertaining.

Granola station with toppings

If you and your loved ones aren’t a fan of smoked salmon, you can try substituting curried chicken salad, plain chicken or tuna salad, or sliced deli meat like turkey or ham with your bagels and toppings.

Alternatively, just like bagels and salmon, granola is nice when served “dressed up” with toppings, too.

Try making your own granola or buying a good quality one from the store. Serve it in individual bowls with an assortment of add-ons like milk, which you can put into a glass pitcher or decanter; plain or vanilla yogurt or yogurt alternative, like coconut milk yogurt, which I really enjoy; and toppings like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, or chocolate chips.

Assorted breads with flavored butter

Whether you’re making brunch for 4 or 40, it’s always a good idea to incorporate items bought from the store along with homemade. Unless you’re a wonderful baker or have the time to spare, bread is a good example of where you may choose to take a “shortcut”. So many grocery store bakeries now have really nice selections ranging from crisp baguettes, dense multigrain loaves, fruity raisin or cranberry-orange breads, savory olive and rosemary boules, and tangy sourdough.

Keeping with the spirit of pairing something homemade with something store-bought, I like to make a complementary flavored butter (or a compound butter) if I am serving bread, biscuits, cornbread or croissants on my holiday table.

For every 1 stick of very soft butter, combine any of the following in a small bowl by hand. Use a hand mixer or food processor, if it makes it easier on your hands or if your butter is still not quite soft enough to stir:

  • Salted honey—this is also one of my all-time favorites for cornbread and biscuits, but works on anything. I add 4 tbsp honey and 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt, like Jacobsens or Maldon, to the butter, then stir well to incorporate.
  • Fresh herbs—add 3 tablespoons of mixed herbs (parsley, chives, and dill) and 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt to the butter. Stir well to incorporate.
  • Cranberry-orange—add 1/4 cup finely chopped, sweetened cranberries; 1 tablespoon orange zest; 1 tablespoon orange juice; and 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt to the butter. Stir well to incorporate.
  • Fig-walnut—add 1/4 cup finely chopped, dried figs; 2 tablespoons toasted, finely chopped walnuts; and 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt to the butter. Stir well to incorporate.
  • Jam or preserves—choose your favorite preserves, like raspberry or orange marmalade, and gently stir 3 tablespoons into the butter along with 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt. You may choose to totally stir it in or make a pretty, swirled effect by gently mixing it, being careful to not mix it fully together.

Some recipes may call for scooping the compound butter into plastic wrap or parchment paper and rolling it up tight into a log, which you can certainly do. Otherwise, you may just choose to serve it in a festive serving bowl or in an individual ramekin or cup.

I love these individual metal cups, which are often found at restaurants when you order a burger and fries or a salad with dressing. I bought a set of them from a restaurant supply store near me, many years ago, but you can of course find them on the internet. They’re durable, available in small and large sizes (I have ones that are 2 oz), and dishwasher safe.

Flavored butter is fast and easy to do-they can be served right away or wrapped and chilled until ready-but if I really want to take a shortcut, I reach for a nice quality butter, like Kerry Gold Irish butter or Vermont Creamery cultured butter. I have also found buffalo milk butter at the store, which has a really unique flavor, like buffalo milk mozzarella cheese.

Along with Irish butter, cultured butter is probably my favorite: it’s tangy, like yogurt, when compared to regular butter. I always get unsalted but sprinkle the top of my buttered bread with flaky sea salt, and depending on the bread may also add a grind or two of fresh pepper, before eating.

Mimosas and bellinis

In addition to coffee or tea, a special-occasion brunch wouldn’t be complete without a cocktail. I usually keep it simple and reach for prosecco or champagne to have on its own, maybe with some OJ (as a mimosa) or elderflower liqueur. A traditional mimosa is of course just orange juice and champagne, and a bellini typically substitutes in peach or raspberry puree instead of the OJ, but the possibilities are endless.

Even if it’s just Dave and I, I still like to make a DIY drink station that’s out of the way from where we are cooking but still close by—for us, since our home is small, that is usually in the dining room. I assemble anything required for what we are having, with ingredients placed on a tray in a designated spot in the dining room. This makes it easy to go back for refills, without getting in the way of the action of what’s cooking in the kitchen at the time.

  • Sparkling wine, cava, Prosecco, or champagne—Don’t choose anything over the top here: just like a fine scotch, if you are going to drop some money on champagne, it is much better consumed on its own, cold and without frills or additions. I like Lunetta Prosecco ($10-13 a bottle at my local liquor stores) but I also choose Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label or Moet Imperial Brut ($39-49 a bottle) for more special occasions. Whatever you choose, serve it cold, either kept in the refrigerator or in an ice bucket.
  • Carafes of juices, nectars and purees—orange juice, fruit nectars like mango or guava, and purees which can be made by blending fresh or frozen fruit with water or simple syrup. I love apricots but when I can’t find them fresh I use dried and add them directly to the simple syrup as I’m making it on the stove. Adding the apricots to the hot syrup helps plump them up. Remove from the heat and let cool before blending.
  • Bottles of cordials—elderflower, raspberry, orange, and peach are all good choices.
  • Garnishes—like edible flowers, raspberries, orange slices, mint, and lemon twists.

You can easily make “mocktails” by not using the cordials and by substituting the wine for sparkling apple cider or seltzer water, which are equally as delicious. Even without going the full “mocktail” route, between drinks I enjoy drinking seltzer on ice with a splash of juice or with a squeeze of lime or lemon, so I also set up a big carafe of water, plain or sometimes flavored with herbs, like mint and cucumber or basil and orange, as well as plenty of seltzer or sparkling water with whatever cocktail I’m serving.

If you don’t have an ice bucket, or don’t feel like dragging it out from wherever it may be stored at present time, then use your sink. Some kitchens, like my mom’s, have a double stainless steel sink, which makes this amazingly convenient. Make sure your sink is clean and plug the drain. Fill your sink with ice and put the bottles in for an instant ice bucket that also will drain itself at the end of the night. Alternatively, you can use a large, stainless steel, glass or plastic bowl or a bucket (preferably food-safe): these are not the most attractive options on the planet, but would work in a pinch.

Whatever your celebration looks like this year, even if smaller than in year’s past, I hope it is a wonderful one full of good food, love, laughter, and enjoyment!