A few years ago, when my kids were pre-schoolers, I hosted a music class at our apartment featuring the now famous singer-songwriter Randy Kaplan.
"Did you go to Blind Brook High School?" Erica Morris, one of the mom's asked me.
Why yes, as a matter of fact I did.
We compared notes and realized that Erica and I grew up in the same small town in Westchester, where I had been friendly with her older sister. Now Erica and her family lived around the corner. More evidence to back my theory that everyone eventually ends up in Park Slope.
There's no huge dramatic pay-off for this story (no long-lost separated twins, for instance), but I still think it's pretty cool.
Basically, after graduating from college and taking a few months to travel and figure out what she wanted to do, Erica worked a number of jobs in the food industry and attended to the Culinary Institute of America. After completing an internship with The Union Square Cafe, she became dining room manager and handled catering sales at the defunct Manhattan restaurant The Tonic.
Eventually, she landed a gig as special events supervisor at People Magazine. A plum position at New York Magazine followed and then her dream job, Director of Events and strategic partnerships at the late great Gourmet Magazine.
With a culinary expert around the corner from me, it seemed only natural I would ask for some advice regarding my upcoming dinner party.
"The truth is that with kids, I don't have many dinner parties. Brunch is really ideal for entertaining," said Erica, mom to two girls. "It's easy and the kids can run around while the adults talk. It doesn't have to be fancy."
Here are Erica's two "go to" brunch recipes (I haven't tried either yet, but maybe next weekend...)
Easy Brunch Baked Eggs
1 loaf white/wheat sandwich bread
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard (I can give you some so you don't have to buy a whole container since you'll likely never use it for anything else!)
2 teaspoons salt, pepper to taste
1 yellow onion, sliced thin and sauteed til clear and soft - you can do this in a little butter or a little olive oil, up to you
1/2 -3/4 lb sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup melted butter
Butter a 9 x 12 glass casserole dish
Remove bread crusts, cube bread and line bottom of casserole dish
Grate cheese if you bought it whole
Mix milk, eggs, spices, cheese and onion in bowl
Pour over bread and cover
Pre-heat over to 325
Melt butter and pour over top of eggs
Bake for 1 hour
You can add cooked, crumbled bacon too, this makes it super tasty. You can add it when you mix the milk, eggs, spices and cheese together.
Serves about 8-10 people depending on size of slices
Chocolate Chip Pancakes
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (I like to use King Arthur Flour - good quality product)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup milk (if you can, use buttermilk, creates a better flavor)
1/4 cup unsalted butter (melted)
2 large eggs - separate the whites from the yolks
1 cup chocolate chips (I like to use mini chips) - or 1 cup of any desired fruit (banana, berries, peaches, etc)
Combine the dry ingredients (first 5 items) in one bowl.
Combine the wet ingredients (milk, butter and yolks) in another bowl.
Combine dry and wet, stir until mixed together (large wooden spoon is best).
Beat the whites with a whisk until foamy and stiff - when you pull up on the whites, they should form a stiff peak.
Fold the whites into the rest of the batter - do this gently and try not to stir too much as you want to keep the air in the whites because this is what makes the pancake fluffy.
Add the chocolate chips.
Add approx 1 tablespoon butter to a sautee pan over medium high heat - once butter is melted and spread on bottom of pan, drop individual pancakes into pan, a large tablespoon works best. Wait until batter is set and bubbly - approx 2 minutes (go by look rather than time) before flipping. Flip pancake and let cook on other side for another 2 minutes or so.
The first batch of pancakes almost always comes out the worst so if you over/under cook them or they just don't come out great, don't worry - it gets better.
I like to preheat my oven to about 250 degrees and put the finished pancakes in the oven on a sheet tray. Then, when my last pancakes are done - all my pancakes are hot and ready to go!
Here are Erica's other cooking tips:
• Have fun! Cooking shouldn't be a grueling task, even if you aren't a "natural".
• Don't be afraid to try new things - so many people follow recipes to a t. I think you can experiment a little based on your own likes/dislikes. For example: if a quiche recipe calls for asparagus and you don't like asparagus, swap it out with something else - like broccoli or spinach.
• Clean as you go - one of the basics taught in culinary school and if you watch any cooking show, you'll see that chefs keep their work space very clean, always wiping counters and cutting boards down, getting garbage out of the way. If you start off this way, it will become second nature and you'll form a good habit that really will make you a better cook
• Cardinal rule of cooking when using a recipe - always read the recipe all the way through first!! You'd be surprised how many people don't do this.
• Lastly - don't fear the fat - fat is flavor. Butter, oil, they are your friends. But of course, everything in moderation.
All great advice, especially that final tip. DON'T FEAR THE FAT! That's my new motto.