When you think of brunch, do you think of sweet and savory Sunday mornings breezing into early afternoons in your living room? The smell of fresh coffee? Mimosas and Bloody Marys? Eggs Benedict and French toast? What about family and friends gathered around your kitchen as you grill the final strips of bacon? Brunch is not just a meal; it’s a national pastime enjoyed in our dining rooms, verandas and kitchens.
No one has more of an appreciation for the morning-meets-afternoon food ritual than Sarabeth Levine, the reigning “queen of brunch.” After all, the James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef has an entire book devoted to the topic: “Sarabeth’s Good Morning Cookbook: Breakfast, Brunch, and Baking” (Rizzoli, $25). Her eponymous New York City restaurant has been a wildly popular weekend brunch spot for over 35 years, along with her four other Manhattan restaurants and Florida and Japan outposts.
We recently asked the acclaimed chef and restaurateur to share her secrets for mastering the art of the brunch. Refreshingly candid, Levine covers a lot of territory in our hour-long conversation — including how to make her magically fluffy scrambled eggs, how to put a sophisticated twist on standards like pancakes.
Previews Inside Out Why do you love brunch so much?
Sarabeth Levine When I was a kid, the weekend breakfast was a big event. I was one of five kids. My mother would make us French toast or hot cereal. She was not the best cook – but she was good cook. When she came home from work, we’d have breakfast for dinner too. So, I always thought of breakfast as a time of being together as a family. It was also the first meal of the day, and our first moments of the day together. Breakfast has always held special meaning for me. Even to this day, the morning is my time.
Previews Inside Out What are some easy ways to elevate the concept of breakfast or brunch at home?
Sarabeth Levine I’m a big believer in getting the basics down first. Chefs typically don’t think like I do. They are much more free-spirited. I’m a baker, and I’m incredibly precise. I can only be free-spirited once I’ve mastered the recipe. My motto is, play by the rules first, then play. Once you’re comfortable with a dish, have fun! Take the Basic Pancake Recipe in my book, for example, and throw some popcorn and blueberries on top.
Previews Inside Out Is it true that “the only thing better than brunch at one of Sarabeth’s restaurants is brunch in her home”? What does a brunch at your house typically look like?
Sarabeth Levine Yes! [Laughing] It can be unnerving, though, especially when all of the grandchildren are together. It usually involves me playing the role of a short order cook, since everyone has different tastes and times they get up in the morning. I usually give the early risers fruit snacks to tide them over until the last person gets up, then I will usually make pancakes and a side of eggs all at the same time.
When I have guests over for brunch, I love doing Gravlox. It’s the silkiest cured salmon you’ve ever eaten. I almost always have Eggs Benedict on my table. I have a poacher that does 16 eggs side by side. I make the English muffins the night before. I might put some juices on the table, or greet guests with a Crunchy No-Booze Bloody Mary, which is in my book. But how much more do you really need to put out on the table? I like to keep my brunches simple.
I don’t like to make a lot of different dishes. I make one dish as a focal point and some little side dishes. When it’s 11 in the morning, it can be heavy to mix a lot of different foods together. To me, less is more.
Previews Inside Out Speaking of less is more, do you have a twist on your famous Eggs Benedict?
Sarabeth Levine I am a purist when it comes to hollandaise sauce. But you can do almost anything with the rest of it. Add a crab cake, or put your poached egg on top of a burger or pork slider. You can put the egg on top of anything.
Previews Inside Out We love a good quiche. Do you have a favorite recipe?
Sarabeth Levine I just made a quiche today!
Previews Inside Out Do share.
Sarabeth Levine I made it with homemade ricotta, baby kale, a little bit chopped chives and parsley on the wonderful dough from the book. I used mini pans — so it’s a play on the traditional quiche. I adore quiche! To me, it’s like the ultimate combination: creamy and soft, yet light and fluffy. I don’t like to eat it when it’s too hot, right out of the oven. I prefer to eat it at room temperature, and I’ll add a petite salad with lemon juice, oil, salt, pepper, and maybe some roasted tomatoes on the side.
Previews Inside Out What’s the secret to a good quiche?
Sarabeth Levine Pay attention to the heat. As soon as it starts to poof, get it out of the oven. You can’t let it get too brown on the top because it will get too watery and it separates. To me, a good quiche is hard to find. If you can make a good quiche, I rate you very high in the kitchen. That means you are paying attention to the detail…because you can very easily overcook a quiche.
Previews Inside Out That reminds me of another “chef test.” You know how they often say that the best way to judge a chef’s technical skill is to watch them make an omelet?
Sarabeth Levine That’s absolutely correct! Everyone thinks eggs are easy to cook — you just throw them in the pan. I always say, “Eggs are easy to make… easy to make badly.” I just trained a chef for our restaurant that is opening in Dubai in August. I asked him to make me an egg. He made it in the French style. Everyone has their own take on eggs. We swirl our eggs around strainer so they’re lighter, and in the pan, they poof, almost like a soufflé. Our omelets are fluffy with no wrinkles on them. I teach people how to do that in the book.
Previews Inside Out Is that your secret to a fluffy scrambled egg too?
Sarabeth Levine Yes. Strain them, and get your pan really hot. Then turn the heat down to a very low flame to keep them loose and creamy.
Previews Inside Out Which one of your recipes at your restaurant is fairly easy to adapt at home?
Sarabeth Levine They are quite a few recipes from the restaurant that are in the book, everything from French toast to Eggs Benedict.
Previews Inside Out Thinking beyond the mimosa… do you have a favorite cocktail that’s appropriate to drink before noon?
Sarabeth Levine Try the Four Flowers Mimosa. It’s a signature drink.
Previews Inside Out What are some things you like to do to make your brunches at home a memorable experience for your guests?
Sarabeth Levine I like to keep it really simple. I’ll serve a Four Flowers Mimosa, or a Lime-Infused Cilantro Syrup that I’ve turned into a delicious lemonade with a few cucumber slices. I always think about the guests and who is coming, and what people do or don’t eat. For instance, I have a friend who is very focused on organic eating now. So I’ll look for dishes that are “from the earth” and are healthy, which I tend to do anyway. I’m always (and especially) careful about sourcing seafood. I always buy organic. Sometimes I do worry about the season…you know, putting tomatoes in a salad when it’s the middle of winter. You must know your guests.
I focus on making a brunch elegant with food. I’ll do an arugula salad with an egg dish with toasted sunflower seeds. It’s clean and simple. I like to feed people what I like to eat… food that I feel tastes good and is good quality. I’ll try to put a little fun element into it too. If I see edible flowers at the market, I’ll throw those on top of the salad because they’re so beautiful. I cook to please myself. Maybe that sounds selfish, but I have to feel really good about what I put out on the table. If I make a salad dressing and it doesn’t taste right, it’s going down the kitchen sink and it’s not going to make it to the table. When I have people come to my house, I want to give them a really great experience and feed them the best food I can place in front of them.
Previews Inside Out Mother’s Day is coming up — what would you cook for mom this year?
Sarabeth Levine Aw, brunch for mommy! I wish could make brunch for my mom.
Previews Inside Out I’m sorry. Did she pass away recently?
Sarabeth Levine It was about 10 years ago. I would just want to be with her for Mother’s Day. It wouldn’t even matter what we were doing together. She was my biggest fan. She loved lox. I would probably make her scrambled eggs with salmon…and maybe a No Boozy Bloody Mary. Oh, and cheese blintzes. They’re in my book too. She loved them!
She worked at my bakery for 20 years after she was “retired.” She was a very smart businesswoman. Nobody ever ran the front of the house like her! My mother knew how to turn over tables without being rude. She would go over to a table of people who had been sitting there for a long while with the check, and she’d say something like: “It’s always so wonderful to see you and family. We love that you come here for breakfast, and we’re hoping to see you next week.” And they’d leave! She was charming, beautiful and she knew how to treat people. She was the epitome of hospitality. Better than me!
Classic Eggs Benedict
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tablespoon water
8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
fine sea salt
12 thin slices best-quality ham, warmed
12 poached eggs (see recipe below), hot
6 whole wheat English muffins (see recipe below), tops trimmed flat, split into haves and toasted
Finely diced red and yellow bell peppers, for garnish
Snipped fresh chives, for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper, for garnish
1. To prepare the hollandaise: fill the bottom of a double boiler or a large saucepan halfway with water and bring to a simmer. In the top of the double boiler or nonreactive metal bowl that fits smugly over the saucepan, whisk the egg yolks and water.
2. Set the top of the double boiler or bowl over the simmering water and whisk until the yolks are very pale and thick, about 3 minutes. If the mixture begins to heat too quickly and threatens to curdle and get lumpy, remove the top pan or bowl from the saucepan and whisk for a while before setting it over the simmering water again. When the yolks are ready, you should be able to see the bottom of the bowl with each stroke.
3. Continue to whisk while adding the butter a little at a time. When all of the butter has been incorporated and the mixture is silky smooth, whisk in the lemon juice and season to taste with salt.
4. Place 1 warm ham slice and then 1 hot poached egg, yoke side down on top of each freshly toasted English muffin half. Spoon the hollandaise sauce on top, letting it run down the sides of the eggs and muffins. Garnish with the bell peppers, chives, and black pepper. Serve immediately.
To poach eggs in an egg poacher, simply bring 1½ inches of water to a full boil in a deep skillet over high heat, then reduce the heat to low to keep the water at a simmer. Brush the insides of the poaching cups with Clarified Butter (page 54) and immediately crack an egg into each. Poach according to the manufacturer’s directions until the whites are set, about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs and let drain on paper towels, if needed. Serve hot.
If you don’t want to use a poacher, bring 1½ inches of water to a full boil in a deep skillet over high heat, then reduce the heat to low to keep the water at a simmer. Crack each egg into a ramekin. Gently slide the eggs, one at a time, into the simmering water. Simmer, spooning the white of each egg back over on itself to help the egg keep an oval shape, until the whites are set, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, lift out each egg and drain on paper towels
Whole Wheat English Muffins
1 cup whole milk
1 cup water
2 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons crumbled compressed yeast or 3 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
1 large egg, beaten
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons stone-ground whole-wheat flour
softened unsalted butter, for the rings
½ cup wheat bran, for the rings
1. At least four hours, and up to eight hours, before making the muffins, prepare the batter. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk, water (if using dry yeast, use ¾ cup water), butter, sugar, and salt to a simmer over medium heat, stirring often to dissolve the butter. Transfer to the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer and cool to room temperature.
2. Sprinkle the compressed yeast into the mixer bowl and let stand for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve. (Or, if using dry yeast, in a small bowel, sprinkle the yeast over ¼ cup lukewarm, 105° to 115° F, water. Let stand until the yeast softens, about five minutes. Then stir to dissolve. Pour into the mixer bowl.) Stir the egg into the yeast mixture. Attach the bowl to the mixer and fit the mixer with the paddle attachment.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose and whole wheat flours. On low speed, gradually beat the flour mixture into the yeast mixture to make a sticky batter. Increase the speed to high and beat for 30 seconds. Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrap down the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or up to 8 hours.
4. Butter the insides of 12 metal entremet rings (3 inches in diameter and 1 ½ inches tall). Place the bran in a small bowl and coat the insides of the rings with some of it. Reserve the remaining bran. Line a half-sheet pan with parchment paper. Arrange the rings on the parchment, spacing them about 1-½ inches apart. Sprinkle a light, even coating of bran into each ring (approximately ¼ teaspoon per ring).
5. Stir down the chilled batter, it will be very sticky. Using a 2 ½-inch diameter ice-cream scoop dipped in cold water, scoop a level portion of dough into each ring. Lightly sprinkle the tops with the remaining bran.
6. Choose a warm spot in the kitchen for proofing. Slip the pan with the rings into a tall kitchen plastic bag. Place two tall glasses of hot water on the pan between the rings to keep the bag from touching the batter. Wave the bag to inflate it and tightly close it, trapping air in the bag. Make sure the plastic does not touch the batter. Let stand until the batter just begins to dome over the top of the rings, about 1-½ hours.
7. Position a rank in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 350°
8. Carefully remove the glasses from the bag, and then remove the pan with the rings. Bake the English muffins until the tops are golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let stand for five minutes, and then remove the muffin from the rings, protecting your hands with a kitchen towel. (If the baked muffins are left in the rings too long, the muffin will steam and get a “cinched waste” look.) Cool slightly and serve warm, or cool to room temperature, split crosswise into thirds or quarters, and lightly toast before serving.
* For a twist on Eggs Benedict, substitute thin slices of Three-Herb Gravlax for the ham.
Four Flowers Mimosa
Makes 8 to 10 servings (about 11 cups)
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 cups plus 6 tablespoons water
1 pound fresh pineapple chunks
3 large bananas, peeled and quartered
4 cups fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grenadine
1. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and 6 tablespoons water and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove the syrup from the heat and cool completely.
2. In a blender or food processor, puree the pineapple and banana until very smooth. Working in batches, if necessary, add the orange juice lemon juice, grenadine, syrup and the remaining 2 cups water and puree until very smooth. If you prefer a thinner juice, strain through a sieve.
3. Transfer to a pitcher, cover, and refrigerate until very cold, at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.
4. Divide the juice among glasses and serve.
5. Fill Champagne flutes one-third full with Four Flowers Juice. Top off with a slightly dry Proesecco or cava. Serve immediately.