Sunday, April 11, 2010

Westville Brunch Wars: The "Bella's" Edition

Since I will be moving to Boston on May 1st, I figured it was about time to do a post on Bella's. The reason I haven't yet is that I am impatient, and on most Sundays (unless you show up at an ungodly hour), there is a wait of at least 45 minutes. I would never brunch-blog based on a memory of when I did stick it out so many months ago, and I simply haven't been able to go the long haul as of late. I also mistakenly assumed that everyone already knew about the place, but as with Lena's, I stand corrected and am eager to spread the good word.

Bella's is significantly smaller than Lena's, and they don't give out free coffee while you wait. No bother, because on a nice day you can hang around Edgewood Park up the street until your number is up (I also do this when it's cold and frozen, but then I try to ice skate in my Uggs, and invariably I fall). Until recently, Bella's also left brunch cocktails entirely to its rival: now you can choose between sangria, a mimosa, and either a peach, raspberry or passion fruit bellini. Though I skipped the alcohol on today's visit, this is a promising development.

Brunch basics at Bella's are good--I've been known to get a short stack of french toast with a side of fresh fruit--but nothing to distinguish it especially from Lena's. Where this colorful, cozy cafe really shines is its specials: I have glutted myself on all kinds of decadent french toasts here in the past, and Bella's has a penchant for tex-mex inspired egg dishes. Today, we went for one sweet special and one savory, and in an atypical turn of events, the savory one actually put my towering whipped-creamy concoction to shame.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The specials menu, as usual, demanded some serious introspection on my part. If I got the strawberry-rhubarb crepe with cream cheese AND ricotta, would I be crossing that fine, but sacred line between "brunch that is sweet" and "brunch that is not brunch, but dessert"? And if so, where would my transgression end? Would I get brunch on Saturday? After 2:00 p.m.? At Dunkin' Donuts? A similar quandary emerged in the choice of savory dishes. The pecan-crusted catfish sounded delicious, sure, but the scrambled eggs kicking it into brunch gear seemed like an afterthought. In an effort to maintain some brunch standards and keep from spiraling out of control, we opted for the challah french toast with berries, brie, bananas, candied pecans and rum maple syrup, and a crepe stuffed with scrambled eggs, wild mushrooms and asparagus topped off with truffle Hollandaise sauce and potatoes.

The french toast was jam-packed with fruit and whipped cream, but a bit over-syruped. I would have preferred a thicker syrup but less of it, and with more concentrated flavor--maybe some berries there to round off the assortment of fresh fruit? Otherwise, though I had no complaints, I simply didn't feel that the "special" french toast brought much more to the proverbial table (because there was sure plenty of it) than the basic menu version with a side of fruit. Sure, the candied pecans should have added some texture, but they got lost in the deep pool of syrup and melting whipped cream that took over my plate.

If there were minor shortcomings in the french toast, though, they were made up for by the seasonal awesomeness of the crepe. I am a big mushroom fan in general, and the strong flavor of whatever wild variety Bella's used for this dish really offset the hint of truffle in the Hollandaise. The asparagus that accompanied it was cut into bite-sized, perfectly crunchy pieces, so the crepe's innards didn't just turn to mush as it sat. I would maybe have loved a bit of sharp cheese--parmesan?--cooked into the scrambled eggs to round the whole thing out, but this might be as much a matter of my personal cheese obsession as it is an objective critique of the dish.

I should also add that though these days I don't eat meat, Bella's has a wide assortment of side sausages that would be a satisfying meal in themselves. We used to order the chicken/apple one, and it was difficult not to just gobble it up before even starting in on the entree.

Finally, if I'm going to be fair and attempt an atmospheric comparison of the two Westville warriors, I have to comment on the Jesus paraphernalia that has begun to creep from the bathroom into the cafe itself. Don't get me wrong--I love me some crucifixion art--but the giant rock (?) slab with a quote from John and a quasi-abstract rendering of Jesus' thorn-crowned head pair awkwardly with the two colorful, more fitting paintings of flappers in the bathroom. Today we sat next to a painting of what we think was a woman reaching for the Shroud of Turin, and though its primary colors matched the restaurant decor, a stock van Gogh or Kandinsky reproduction would have worked just as well.

With that, I'll leave you to cast your own vote in the great showdown of the Westville Brunch Wars. I will likely be just as hungry for french toast and ways to procrastinate when I move to Boston, so stay tuned for the brunch low-down from my new home!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Merry Brunchmas!

A few factors in combination enticed me to do a non-review post just in time for the holidays, which I hope won't be too jarring for my readers. What's that you say? Readers? Why, yes! I have received a number of friendly messages recently from people who read my blog. Who knew?! People apparently do care about brunch (at least a little bit), and I don't do this purely to amuse myself. I also wrote up a guest column on brunch-themed Christmas gifts for a friend's blog, and I realized how many more things there were just begging to be profiled. Since I have a few hours to laze around for the first time in a while, I hereby present you with a festive panoply of brunchy items.

Since there's no excuse like brunch to knock back a few on Sunday morning, I thought I would start with something alcoholic. I've tried quite a few different brands of Cassis, and after stumbling upon a particularly good one at a bar in Boston's South End, have bought nothing else since. Jules Theuriet Creme de Cassis De Dijon is a deep, purply red, not verging on beige like some less tasty versions. It's available online ( for $12, and the label is pretty, too. Throw a Cassis-colored bow on it and pop it under the tree (or give it to your boss, or your in-laws, or whomever). I might even pair it with a miniature bottle of champagne as a stocking stuffer, available at any biggish liquor store for between about $1.50 and $5.00--Moet et Chandon even makes one.

I'm planning to assemble my grandmother's old, hand-written brunch recipes into a homemade cookbook of sorts, which has got me on the look out for design ideas from real cookbooks. There are, unsurprisingly, plenty of brunch-themed collections to choose from, which make a great backbone for a brunch-themed holiday gift basket. Gale Gand's Brunch!: 100 Fantastic Recipes for the Weekend's Best Meal has recipes for almond ciabatta french toast, orange-date muffins and watermelon gaspacho, along with many other things I'm hoping to make myself. Breakfasts and Brunches by the Culinary Institute of America has a section devoted entirely to Breakfast and Brunch Drinks, so the Cassis will come in handy.

One thing that James and I discovered in preparing our engagement brunch was that making lemon curd from scratch can be tricky and time-consuming. And, since there are so many pretty, delicious options for buying it pre-made, it might as well kick off a long list of brunch-gift edibles that people are unlikely to whip up themselves. Spoon in New York ( makes an adorable version that I hear is delicious, though I can only personally testify to the quality of the curd at Trader Joe's. Both Spoon and Sarabeth's, another NYC brunch institution, also make tons of quaintly packaged jams, syrups and mixes. The blood orange marmalade at Sarabeth's is legendary (just ask them), and can be ordered on their website:

And now onto the non-alcoholic brunch beverage of choice: coffee. While couching this hypothetical gift assortment in a mess of coffee beans may not sound so very exciting, the grinder that I've been using at home is. It's a vintage Kitchenaid A-9 model, which both looks fabulous on the counter and does a great job actually grinding coffee beans. The claim to fame of this sleek, fearsome creature is that it grinds the beans at a low rpm, meaning that it doesn't heat them. Though KitchenAid made plastic versions of the A-9 for a time, eBay almost always has the older, more solid aluminum-and-glass versions for anywhere between $50 and a few hundred dollars. I cannot recommend this thing highly enough: it's a conversation piece, it's incredibly easy to use and it will hold up for years. Just store your beans in the glass hopper and flick the switch when you want them ground!

Because all of these delicious things need to go in/on something, and because gift certificates to brunch places aren't very interesting in the telling, I'll end with a couple of my favorite serving pieces. I am now old (and/or lamely domestic) enough to have a favorite china maker, Denby, and it goes on major sale a couple of times a year. I am partial to their Craftman's Mug in Greenwich--a deep teal with tiny flecks of beige--for daily use. It's currently 50% off at, putting it at $16.50. And finally, for the even lower price of $9.99 (on, "stack" up on Le Creuset stoneware stackable ramekins, which come in black, white, and a bunch of brighter colors. These often show up at Le Creuset outlet stores, as well, one of which is located at Clinton Crossing in Clinton, CT--only a 20-minute drive or so from New Haven.

As you can see, brunch is an almost endless source of holiday inspiration. Or, you could just make like I do and find excuses to buy this stuff for yourself all year round. Either way, it's both pretty and practical, and can be easily mixed-and-matched (with more or less booze) as you see fit.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Westville Brunch Wars: The "Lena's" Edition

Before life got a little hectic and my brunch blogging ground to a halt, I found myself in a bit of a bind. Our go-to Sunday establishments, Bella's and Lena's, are across the street from one another in the "village" of Westville, New Haven. When it's been a busy week and I'm in need of a sure thing (that "thing" being typically a french toast souffle), I just can't muster up the curiosity to go anywhere else. I assumed that everyone was as familiar with these mainstays of the local brunch scene as we are, and that blogging them would be akin to putting in my belated two cents on oysters at the Union League Cafe. But, based on a few recent conversations, it seems that not everyone is up on the wonders of Westville, and that's a shame.

We hadn't hit Lena's for a couple of months before today, and I was happy to see that all was as we left it. One of the cafe's selling points over its competition up the road is that there's free coffee and tea if you have to wait (and inevitably, you will). There is an impressive array of flavors to choose from while you settle into a lounge area with well-worn couches and magazines, including my personal favorite, coconut macaroon. The furniture is also positioned for prime viewing of the day's confections.

Lena's has plenty of tried-and-true fundamentals on the menu, including the house special french toast souffle (a hefty slab of challah bread with vanilla, cinnamon and crème anglaise) and a solid range of omelets. The real draw, though, is the separate menu of weekly specials, and this week's was unusually impressive even given a high bar. I was torn between the caramel apple stuffed french toast (which I ultimately went with) and a twist on the usual souffle that included apricots and blueberry crumble. James contemplated a shrimp omelet, but settled on one of the more inventive options: apple and fennel fritters topped with poached eggs, Hollandaise sauce and asparagus with a side of home fries. If we were beef eaters, one of us would surely have ordered a blue-cheese crepe with sirloin.

All of the specials, which typically run around $13-$15, include your choice of bottomless coffee, tea or juice. Since I had already helped myself to a lot of free caffeine during a wait of about fifteen minutes, I ordered some grapefruit juice for the first time at Lena's. Now juice is expensive and it comes with the meal, but I can't say that I wasn't disappointed to see that bright-pink, lots-of-sugar-added stuff that was dispensed from a machine in my college dining hall. It was completely incongruous with the fresh, cozy feel of Lena's, and I'd rather have had to pay $2 more for the real stuff. For $5, I could have had a mimosa or glass of sangria, a fact which was charmingly presented on a blackboard with multicolored chalk.

The entrees were very good, if not the best I've had at Lena's. The apples in the stuffed french toast were cooked just right, slightly mushy but not falling apart, but the mascarpone and caramel filling blended a bit too easily into the whipped cream at the center of the plate. I'm a mascarpone nut and so my opinion might be skewed, but I would happily have tolerated slightly more of it to offset the tartness of the apples. The presentation, as always, was lovely, with green apples in the main dish and red apples as garnish.

James' fritters were moist and chewy, and the fennel paired well with the Hollandaise sauce in what could have been a bizarre combination of flavors. The broken yolks of the poached eggs also made a nice topping for the asparagus, which James sliced up to mix in with the fritter-mush rather than leave on the side. As with the french toast, though, the dish would have benefited from just slightly more sauce, since the fritters were a generous size and quickly sopped up most of what was there.

All in all, Lena's specials fall just a *tad* shy of their ambitious conception. But in a great space run by friendly people and so full of sweet ideas, I'll gladly give an "A" for effort and keep coming back for more.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Leon's: A Legend Reborn

Leon's was apparently a New Haven landmark when I was just a twinkle in my mother's eye. Years after closing its doors on Howard Avenue (originally opened in 1938), it has found a new home on the Long Wharf waterfront. Though it's not listed on their website, my stylist tipped me off to the fact that Leon's has an elaborate Sunday brunch buffet for only $25/person, including tax, tip and your choice of brunch cocktail. So, though the day was overcast and a little chilly, James and I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Our reservations were for 11:00, and we were nearly the first ones there. A liveried waiter was putting the finishing touches on the coffee station and the buffets were still pristine. The restaurant has an old-school, understated elegance to it that I recognized from parts of Wooster Square; the wooden tables were fittingly simple, adorned only with crisp ivory napkins and basic white plates. After the hostess put us at a table for two in front of a full-length window overlooking the water, a waitress immediately came over to take our cocktail order (I went with a Mimosa and James had a Screwdriver). It's a good thing we got an early start, because we needed serious digestion time in between trips to the food stations.

While I'm not usually a huge buffet fan if only for the reason that I don't eat enough to make it worth my while, this one was something to marvel at. Hot items served on one side of the room included a manned omelet station; carving station; baked scrod with an olive sauce; a light pasta primavera; Chicken Cacciatore; Leon's trademark Panne Cotto and a breakfast selection of mini waffles; french toast; fresh fruit toppings; whipped cream; home fries; bacon & sausage and, of course, scrambled eggs. The cold selections were even more impressive, especially an artisan cheese display, jumbo shrimp cocktail and salads featuring various combinations of fresh salmon, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, pasta and vegetables.

As if that weren't enough to keep us munching for hours, there was an additional dessert and pastry display at the bar. Beyond the expected assortment of croissants, breads and jams, scones, mini-muffins and a delicious coffee cake that I suspect was made almost purely of butter, there were some more interesting fruit tarts and an array of cookies and cheesecakes that I just couldn't muster the appetite to sample. There was a surprise birthday party happening off the main dining room, and I sincerely hope that they had the good sense not to bring their own cake.

The ambiance would naturally have been aided by some sunlight, but even on a cloudy day, we were content to watch the sea birds bask and dive outside our window. Mystic, CT the New Haven waterfront is not, but there was a large ship coming into port and there is a brick area with benches and lights to have a rest in after chowing down inside. Provided that you're not expecting a bustling esplanade or Caribbean breeze, I'm sure that Leon's outdoor patio would be a pleasant and unique spot to have brunch al fresco (and we would have had weather permitted). That said, I was irked by a couple of minor things that may speak more to my own hang-ups than to the restaurant's failings: the music--top 40 of yesterday (I heard 90s Bon Jovi and Britney Spears)--didn't match the care that had gone into everything else. I could also have done without ESPN on the big screen in the bar, but James tells me that some people watch sports on Sundays. Who knew?

I wouldn't choose Leon's over the best of the smaller brunch spots in the area (Bella's in Westville or even Pond House in West Hartford), but what it does it does well. The service was prompt and attentive, the buffet was kept clean and God knows there was ample selection, and the water views are pleasant. Some of the things I sampled were really top notch, such as the Panne Cotto and a few of the salads, and the more run-of-the-mill breakfast items were still perfectly tasty. I'm glad that we went and I may well go back, but on most Sunday mornings, I'm just not quite hungry enough to make Leon's my go-to brunch choice.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Pond House Cafe: Brunch in Full Bloom

The Pond House Cafe in West Hartford, CT would probably be booked solid on Sunday mornings even if the food were re-heated in a microwave and served on paper plates. Its bucolic location in Elizabeth Park makes it well worth a trip from New Haven (it only took us 45 minutes), particularly when the country's oldest municipal rose garden is in full bloom just steps from the restaurant's entrance. Fortunately for us, the gardens and duck pond are but a pleasant addition to a seriously awesome brunch menu.

By that I don't mean only that the entrees are well prepared, though ours were. The menu is designed around ideal (in my mind, at least) and surprisingly elusive breakfast-to-lunch and sweet-to-savory ratios. Before we had even tasted anything but the coffee, I was ready to give the place five stars for range of selection alone: omelets ran the gamut from an artichoke/red pepper/spinach/fresh chevre combo to an interesting mix of spinach, apple and brie. The Pond House manages an appealing balance of cute and gourmet in both atmosphere and cuisine, cozy and festive without making me wonder if I took a wrong turn straight into the "American Girl" store. One case in point is the pair of Benedict options, one traditional and one with a characteristic twist. The second ditches the English muffin and Canadian bacon in favor of a fluffy, trademark Pond House crab cake atop fresh cornbread, and both are served with a side of spicy roasted potatoes.

The classic, carb-fest brunch fare that I usually opt for also gets the Pond House cute-but-not-cutesy treatment. A pancake special was filled with strawberries and raspberries instead of the same old blue mush, and a stuffed french toast (with apple-ricotta and a brown sugar ginger sauce) had just been updated to a tropical version with cream cheese, pineapple, macadamias and toasted coconut with a side of caramelized banana. I was hesitant to order it for fear that the fruit would be overwhelming--there was pineapple in the bread and on top--but with an assurance from the waitress that it had been a hit so far I went for it. I was more than happy with my decision, particularly because the presentation was so fun: the french toast was two slices with the cream cheese filling in between, rather than one large piece of bread folded and pinned more messily.

More to the point, the plate it was served on has become one of my must-have household items. Unlike anything I had ever seen, it was a sleek, modern oval design (think kind of an upscale Ikea look) with a small dipping hole for the syrup and a lip to keep food from sliding down into it. The waitress tipped me off that it was by Rosenthal, a German porcelain maker. I haven't managed to track down the specific dish yet (pictured), but here is a link to the company's website:

If I had a single misgiving about the Pond House, it would be only that the plate was in a different league of design than the rest of the place. By that I mean only that the rugs, wall paneling and chairs could use some updating to match the quality of the food and service, but it's not surprising that this hasn't emerged as a major concern since the flowers would upstage any possible refurbishing.

So, though you may not have found sufficient reason to journey to Hartford before (New England's rising star though it is), the Pond House will be my excuse for at least a day trip each season. Stroll around the park, eat outside by the pond if weather permits, and bring a bottle of champagne to take advantage of the BYOW policy. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe house museums are all under a ten-minute drive away, and if yuppies are more your style, West Hartford center is its own kind of upscale suburban shopping destination. Roses, french toast and "Five Centuries of European Masterworks,"--why not?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Heirloom at The Study: Great Space, Great Eggs.

After brunch, my other favorite hospitality industry "thing" is boutique hotels. Maybe it's because my parents made me stay at the Econo Lodge when I was growing up, and maybe it's because I have an unfounded fear that even the nicest chain hotels are more likely to host bed bugs, but I love the idea of roughly 100 or fewer rooms and a swank little restaurant all being personally overseen by someone I'd want to have drinks with in the hotel bar. So when The Study moved in only a block from my apartment (directly across from the Yale art school on Chapel Street), I felt like New Haven had finally come into its own as a city.

And as it turns out, the hotel's restaurant serves Sunday brunch. Heirloom occupies a great, wide open space on the hotel's ground floor that I've gone to for lunch and drinks, and I've been impressed with the service of both the head bartender (Rob!) and general manager (Val!). Val explained that, after many years working in Greenwich, he was trying to create something of comparable quality but greater accessibility in New Haven. Right--makes sense. When I suggested that the recently-abandoned $22 three-course-plus-a-cocktail brunch prix fixe might have been a good way to strike exactly that balance, he agreed and gave me a card for 25% off brunch the following Sunday.

We made our reservation for right when the restaurant opened at 11:30, and during the course of our meal there were only three other tables seated. Nonetheless, it didn't feel too empty, and hotel guests seemed to be trickling in as we were leaving. I expected that the food would be well-executed basics--no cutesy spins on waffles or monkey bread and no explosions of whipped cream--and that was about right. The menu included an Eggs Benedict option (listed as "How Do You Like It?" to which we replied "with salmon!"); a mix-and-match eggs/hash browns/breakfast meat ensemble; regular or blueberry pancakes and a "pastel" egg dish--two whites, one yolk and other ingredients to taste. Otherwise you were left with highlights from the lunch menu, including a lobster fried rice that I can recommend based on trying it during restaurant week.

While I understand that not everyone favors my "more breakfast than lunch" brunch formulation, where I felt the menu to fall short was in not matching the range of its starters to the range of its main dishes. I ordered the blueberry pancakes, and would have considered getting a starter or side to go with it. But tomato soup and clam chowder, however tasty, a fitting lead-in to a fruity carb fest do not make. Some kind of fruit assortment, warm brie, a sweet breakfast sausage (I'm a vegetarian, but you get my drift) or even a take on the hash browns that were featured elsewhere on the menu would have created a symmetry from course to course that was noticeably absent.

What we did order, though, was delicious and well-presented. James' smoked salmon Eggs Benedict (pictured), in particular, was impressively shaped: if you've tried to poach an egg recently, you'll know what I mean. The Hollandaise sauce wasn't overly thick or salty and the salmon was cooked *just* through and flaked perfectly. My blueberry pancakes excited me less because, well, there's only so much you can do with blueberry pancakes, but all three were large, fluffy and filled with many whole tiny blueberries rather than just mush. Both of our dishes were garnished with a half-strawberry and a single orange spiral. Though I felt I had reached my drink limit for the weekend and didn't order one, the cocktail options included a Mimosa, a Bloody Mary, an Irish coffee and one of my favorites--a Bellini! I'll take a Bellini over a Mimosa any day, and I was happy to see this under-represented little gem make an appearance so close to home.

It may not be cozy like The Pantry or bustling like Lena's, but Heirloom provides a worthy brunch alternative to, say, Sage on the waterfront or Scoozzi's jazz brunch up the street. The prices are reasonable for the type of restaurant that it is--$14 for the Benedict and $10 for the pancakes--and it gave me an excuse to ditch the yoga pants and flip-flops for something a little more upscale. And even if you don't obsess over boutique hotels as an idea, it's good for New Haven that one has arrived and we'd do well to support it so long as the food is on par with other options. And it is, and it's right downtown, so mix things up a little and ask for a seat by the window.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How To Throw An Engagement Brunch. (Or, At Least, How We Did.)

True, James and I got engaged months ago. But we only recently set our date, and decided it was as good a reason as any to throw ourselves a brunch. Figuring that our fairly large one-bedroom apartment could hold around 20 people comfortably, we sent out Evites to just over that number of family and close friends. (For anyone who doesn't use Evite already, you should.) Given our space constraints, extended family didn't make the cut, and instead this seemed like a good opportunity for our parents and siblings to mingle with what wedding party members and other future wedding guests were still in town. Rather than provide a long, rambling paragraph full of engagement brunch miscellany, here is a long, rambling step-by-step run-down of what we did:

1) I picked a "theme" of sorts based on what fruit was in season. The brunch was in mid-June, so I came up with a menu that featured fresh strawberries. We went to Bishop's Orchards in Guilford, CT on the day before the brunch and hand picked four pounds of berries for about $12 total. (Bishop's also has goats and llamas for visitors to feed, so really, I'll use any excuse to go there.) We made sure to get a mix of big AND small berries for different purposes: big for covering with chocolate, and smallish for floating in a champagne punch and skewering.

2) Menu design. I am a firm believer that brunch is more breakfast than lunch, and picked what to serve accordingly. In order to both play up the strawberry theme and get a little festive, we first decided on a "feature" dish: a big, beautiful fruit trifle. (Recipe link at the end of the post.) For the rest, I felt that things should be mainly finger/toothpick foods to keep it simple, since guests were already bringing: a quiche, fruit salad, lemon-cranberry scones, banana and zucchini bread, lavender-lemon cupcakes AND a tomato-basil strata. So without further ado, here's what we came up with on our end:

-Strawberry champagne punch and peach iced tea to drink.
-The Trifle: with strawberries, blueberries, lemon curd and a mascarpone cream.
-Various skewers: tomato-basil-prosciutto; just tomato/basil; fruit-and-cheese with three types of cheese and three types of fruit to each skewer (cheddar, jack and swiss cheese with small red grapes, strawberries, watermelon and cantaloupe). We accidentally bought bamboo skewers that were much too big and had to cut them in half, so stick to something smallish.
-Melon wrapped in prosciutto (cantaloupe or honeydew) and held together with colored toothpicks. I used both the big and small ends of our melon baller ($2.50 at Target!) and mixed up the arrangement.
-Chocolate-covered strawberries: dark chocolate, and dark chocolate with white chocolate tips.

3) Trader Joe's for (most of) the rest. Though I typically prefer other, non-chain grocery stores in the area (Nica's, Bishop's, Edge of the Woods) TJ's has great bulk specialty items. We picked up a hefty supply of prosciutto, mozzarella balls, assorted cheeses for skewering, melons, lemon curd for our trifle and melting chocolate for about $100. We also grabbed some frozen appetizers to keep on hand in case of an emergency shortage, because why not? Finally, at the liquor store we stocked up on rose champagne for the punch. We got three bottles for 20 people, and it was more than enough even with me drinking it like juice all afternoon.

4) Assembly. We had told everyone to come over at noon, and we wanted things to be fresh without having to wake up at 6:00 a.m. So, at around 7:00 p.m., we sat down for a long night of food preparation putting the fruit slicing off until the very end. The mascarpone cream for the trifle had to be whipped up beforehand anyway, we alternated between doing that and dipping/freezing the chocolate covered strawberries first. When we did get to assembling the fruit and cheese skewers, sometime around midnight, everything was immediately wrapped up and stacked in an extra-cold fridge. Since stuff was being served in large amounts over the course of an afternoon, I used multiple small plates rather than one big platter. That way there's room for more things on the table at once without overcrowding, and things stay wrapped up longer. Same for the iced tea: in addition to filling the big pitcher that we planned to serve it from, I filled multiple big Tupperware containers with it to have on hand for easy refills.

5) Layout. If you're a grad student living in an apartment like we are, chances are you don't have a giant dining room table either. So, we arranged one portion of each item at a time around the trifle centerpiece, and brought in a small bistro table to use as a drink station. The strawberry-champagne punch was the last thing we made in an effort to conserve precious carbonation, and we put it out in a punch bowl that matched our trifle dish. We went with clear plastic cups and paper plates even though I wanted to use real dishes (James thought I was crazy). In a gesture towards eco-friendliness and cost-savings, we brought in one of our potted flowers instead of buying fresh cut ones. I printed out simple menus and hung one on the wall behind each table, though in retrospect I wish I had put more effort into them--in true Martha Stewart style--or ditched them altogether.

And to wrap things up, here is the link to the trifle recipe we used substituting lemon curd for lime and adding a fresh mint garnish:

Hosting your own brunch is fun, brings your friends and family into one place, and most importantly, allows you to put off doing other things while tricking yourself into feeling productive. And if you don't feel like getting engaged just now, I'm sure you can think of another excuse to fete yourselves. Enjoy!