Hosting a Friendsgiving Brunch

My favorite season of the year is Fall. The brilliant hues of harvested apples, pears and squash; foliage changing from fresh greens to a kaleidoscope, golds, sharp tangerine, mellow melon, peach, apricot – warm caramel, luscious chocolate and aubergine all causing one’s imagination to wander to a warm crackling fire, wrapped in a cozy sweater, sipping steamy apple cider, hot chocolate or buttered rum. What could be more comforting and inviting?

Bellini Cocktails, Sparkling Apple Cider.

Several year’s ago I went on a quintessential Fall Pilgrimage Tour of New England. Having grown up mostly on the west coast of the U.S. I was always curious about the east coast, especially during the season of changing leaves. The experience was everything I had imagined and more, so much so that I went back a few years later. I loved it so much and would go every year if I could. Of course, I can’t go every year, but I can coax a little of those memories to life in some way each year in my home.

This year (2019), I’m planning a Wine Club Friendsgiving with just the girls to share some of the food and spirits experienced on my September trip to Germany, France and Switzerland. In order to keep that plan under the radar so that my gal pals can be surprised, I decided to share some imagines from a Friendsgiving brunch I hosted a few years ago.

For ten years I worked with a wonderful group of ladies at a bank that was eventually purchased by a large credit card company. After that purchase our division was gradually phased out and our group disbursed into various directions that included different employers and in some cases a complete change in careers. For many years since that break up, one friend in particular routinely scheduled monthly after work dinner meetings at various restaurants for our group to gather and stay in touch. Over time, it has grown more difficult to get the group together, each entering different phases of their lives including retirement.

I decided to host a Friendsgiving Brunch for the group and about eight attended. My menu consisted of Southern comfort food dishes and seasonal fruits. Above: Appetizer – mini crab cakes. Below: A citrus salad of sliced blood and naval oranges, shaved coconut, chopped pistachios with a honey citrus vinaigrette.

Below: The main course -Cheesy jalapeño grits and grillades made with thinly pounded pork loin.

Below: Dessert -Pear brandy cream cheese stuffed bosch pears pouched in apple cider and honey, served with Amarena cherries and a cinnamon sugar palmier.

Below: Gift/Favor bags filled with homemade cranberry orange scones and small jars of preserves.

This menu has fairly simple ingredients and preparation. The crab cakes can be formed and refrigerated over night to be cooked about an hour before everyone’s arrival and set in a low temperature oven until ready to serve. The grillades can be cooked a day ahead and re-warmed with the grits prepared early in the morning in a slow cooker and then set on low to keep warm with an occasional stir.

My first experience with poached pears was at a bed and breakfast in Calistoga, CA, as part of the breakfast menu. I remembered how much I enjoyed it, thinking it was a unique and delicious idea for breakfast. Theirs was poached in red wine (appropriate for the wine country). I chose a recipe using apple cider for my Fall themed brunch. I prepped and cooked the poached pears (without over cooking) leaving them in the pot until ready to serve. As I peeled and cored each pear, I filled it’s center with a mixture of softened cream cheese, spiked with a small amount of pear brandy and vanilla extract. The liquid can be re-warmed just prior to serving and poured over each pear set into a bowl or glass dessert dish with sides, or it is just a delicious at room temperature. A spoonful of amarena cherries was set along the side of the pear and its apple cider broth.

Amarena cherries can be found at some of the local gourmet stores, seasonally at Trader Joe’s or online. They’ve become a favorite of my wine club and can also be used for cocktails. Once you try them you’ll understand why. Other similar options are Dark Morello or French Griottines (cherries in kirsch brandy). Note: A jar of these make a great hostess gift!

The favor/gift bags were prepared with ribbon the small jars of preserves wrapped in one of the friendsgiving napkins with twine a week in advance. The mini scones were baked fresh the morning of the brunch wrapped in wax paper (due to the butter content) and tucked into the bags to be distributed before everyone disbursed.

Finally the Bellini bar was set up about a half hour before everyone’s arrival, along with a freshly brewed pitcher of iced tea for those who do not drink alcohol. A bottle of iced down prosecco and sparkling apple cider (another non-alcohol option), a bottle of pureed peach nectar (Tuesday Morning) and Grand Mariner raspberry peach liqueur all set on my cocktail cart with glasses to the side for self serve.

Simple dishes and easy set up for a lovely way to gather and enjoy the company of friends and celebrate this glorious season that like clockwork, recurs year after year.


Cheesy Goodness -Need an idea for your Cheese Course at your next wine tasting or dinner party?

Are you thinking about hosting a dinner or wine tasting party and need a fresh idea for the cheese course? Hosting a wine club for the past five years, I’m always seeking out new ideas. While a traditional board or tray of the standard soft, hard and blue cheese is more than acceptable, if you’re looking for something a little less predictable, I’m sharing some of the variations I’ve found and served.

Cheese is expensive and I’ve learned over time that less is more. The cheese course should be the first of “small bites”, so that your guests still have room in their bellies to enjoy the small bites they’ve prepared (for my wine club each couple or single brings a small bite and bottle of wine) or the dinner you’ve prepared. If you’re hosting a book club or just wine tasting with cheese the first option below offers a great variety of items for nibbling.

As usual Pinterest can offer great inspiration for the cheese course, but I also have found inspiration from Food Network programs (as is show in the links below provided) and wine magazines. One day as I was leaving my local wine store I noticed that they had a stack of back issues of Wine Enthusiast near the door with a sign that said “Free”. I confirmed with the cashier just to be sure and then sifted through the stack and found one with a cover that read “The Cheese Issue”. I was in a hurry, but grabbed two other issues that looked like they may have information to inspire me.

This is where I found the recipe for the goat cheese tarts that were an absolute hit! Don’t let expensive or unusual ingredients intimidate you. With the internet you can search for substitutions for ingredients that aren’t affordable or readily available. As an example, the ingredient for red verjus I learned can be substituted with red wine vinegar or simple red wine. Since vinegar was an option, I had a small bottle of mango pulp vinegar I received as a gift and substituted it for the verjus. In lieu of eucalyptus honey, I used clover honey that I had in my pantry. Orange blossom, wildflower, lavender honeys – whatever you have or can find a small jar of will work just as well and had no affect on the end result. I did have to purchase gelatin sheets online, but that’s something I wanted to have in my pantry anyway. This issue contained a few other cheese “recipes” that I intend to use at future wine meetings as a creative alternative to the beautiful, but same ole’ cheeseboard.

Traditional cheese tray. Hard cheeses that pair with summer white wines, fruit, sliced meats, marcona almonds and crackers.
In the center of the table, honey goat cheese
rolled in chopped cranberries and crystalized ginger.

Serving size for a book club or wine and cheese tasting party.
Oven Roasted red seedless grapes, sliced salami, grilled brie and
grilled walnut bread with crackers on the side.
(Wine Club themed Summer Grillin’)

Serving size one per couple.
Grape and Onion Mostrada
with Blue Cheese and Pecan Ice Box Crackers
(Wine Club “South American Reds”)
Serving size one per couple
Goat’s Milk Pavé with Mango Honey Gelée adapted from the recipe below:
(Wine Club: Annual Wine Off)
Serving size one tart -per person served as shown above.

Italian Baked Fontina in small 6″ cast iron skillets, served with toasted breads, and apple slices.
(Wine Club: Italian Reds)
Serving size one skillet per couple.
Baked brie topped with red wine, rosemary, black cherry, black grape and raspberry compote.
(Wine Club: Valentine Theme)

Serving size one per couple.
Grilled Feta with garlic and cherry tomatoes,
served with toasted pita triangles or naan bread.
(Wine Club: Symphony of Whites- included Greece)

This was prepared and served in an 8 inch cast iron skillet
on a table with other cheeses. It can easily be prepared in
smaller portions and served in one 6 inch skillet per couple.
Beer cheese fondue served with baked pretzels
(pretzels found in the freezer section of grocer).
(Wine Club: Symphony of Whites – included Germany)

Group serving, also great for a beer tasting or Octoberfest party.

Ramekin over a wax burner from the dollar store. The perfect serving size for two.

When serving the cheese course at the table, I use a vessel that provides a serving size for two (1 per couple). A round of brie is usually cut into four and one triangle (one fourth) is used per couple. Six inch cast iron skillets serves two the baked Italian fontina cheese and baked brie with compote.

As a personal note, PLEASE invite a single friend or two. They need to be part of group gathering just as much if not more so as couples. I personally do not have a partner. I host my gatherings with up to 7 couples and two singles. When serving these individual cheese courses, I divide the serving between myself and the other single guest into separate dishes or we sit side by side and share the dish just as the couples do.

Whether you’re hosting a game night, a wine tasting, a dinner party or book club, I hope these cheese course alternatives will inspire you to do something a little different and surprising!