Brunch the stress-free way to entertain

Prepare your main dishes ahead of time and create memories by doing the unexpected

Walter Tychnowicz, Wiresharp Photography

Stasia Nawrocki, known for her workshops on entertaining, suggests creating an impression for all the senses when your guests walk through the door — including a welcome glass of eggnog. 

By: Chris Standring

Postmedia Content Works

While the rest of the family angles over who gets to host the lauded Christmas feast, why not make it easy on yourself and offer to do brunch instead? Whether it’s your first time or you’re a seasoned veteran of cooking for a gang, you’ll find brunch can be much easier to pull off than dinner. Often, it’s more appreciated, too, especially on a day marked by steady grazing on nuts and goodies.


“People are hungry after gift opening,” says Judy Schultz, well-known cookbook author and former food writer for the Edmonton Journal.


“Brunch is a perfect way to offer fresh, locally produced foods to your family this time of year,” she adds. “Ham, bacon or sausage, and eggs with cream and cheese cover the basics for a fabulous brunch, and they’re all available from local producers. Just add some home-made biscuits with fresh fruit and your brunch is complete.”


Celebrated Calgary food blogger and cookbook author Julie Van Rosendaal says it’s easier to get people together for brunch around the holidays, especially those with young families. “You don’t need to get a sitter and there isn’t the issue of bedtime.”


Brunch is a more affordable way to entertain, she adds. “An Alberta-produced ham is my go-to choice for the holidays. It will feed an army, and kids love it. Everyone loves it. 


“And you can’t beat good-quality eggs, bacon, milk and cheese for satisfying a hungry crowd. I always have some Sylvan Star Gouda in the fridge to grate into biscuits or scramble into eggs. ”


Ham also provides the best leftovers, says Van Rosendaal.

“It’s great in sandwiches or pasta, and it pairs perfectly with pulses. I always simmer the bone with lentils for a hearty soup.”


For a stress-free brunch, all the main dishes can be prepared ahead, says Schultz.


“A ham warm from the oven, a traditional egg strata made the night before and fresh biscuits are simple but welcome choices that are easy to prepare.”


Ham is one of the easiest meats to prepare for a holiday celebration, says Schultz, because it’s already cooked. All you have to do is heat it to a serving temperature, 110 F to 120 F, and apply a simple glaze.


Stasia Nawrocki agrees. The creative author and retailer of Dansk fame, known for her workshops on entertaining and tablescapes, says make-ahead dishes allow you to enjoy your guests instead of being stuck in the kitchen.


At the recent Christmas in November festival at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, host Nik Manojlovich featured an adaptation of the Christmas Morning Wife Saver, the familiar make-ahead casserole, from one of the original Best of Bridge cookbooks. He called it one of Alberta’s best-kept secrets and applauded the authors.


“The original recipe is genius and needed no improvement. I simply wanted to re-create it using some of my favourite ingredients.”


His version uses dry-cured ham called parma and Gruyere cheese, both offered by Alberta producers.  


“Brunch can be every bit as memorable as dinner,” says Nawrocki. She likes to include the element of surprise. “Try serving brunch buffet-style, by the fireplace,” she suggests. “It gives the occasion a picnic feel. That’s how you make memories,” she says, “by doing the unexpected.”


Create an impression for all the senses the moment your guests walk through the door, adds Nawrocki. Candles flickering, coffee brewing on the stove, the aroma of ham coming from the oven, and a welcome glass of fresh-made eggnog to offer your guests.

Sourcing fresh, local ingredients 

Pork: Look for the blue and white Alberta Pork label in your grocery store. If you don’t find it, ask the manager of the meat department. And since they’re in the business of butchering meat, your local independent meat market most likely carries fresh Alberta pork.


Eggs: You can’t beat the quality of farm-fresh Alberta eggs. Knowing where they come from, what the chickens are fed and how they are raised are key in determining how healthy they are. Alberta egg farmers produce a wide variety of eggs for every taste and dietary need.


Dairy: Alberta is home to nine cheese makers who produce over a hundred varieties of Canadian cheeses that are widely available in supermarkets, cheese shops and farmers markets. The blue cow 100% Canadian milk symbol is a seal of origin that guarantees the dairy product is made from a local producer. Alberta cheeses have won top awards in Canada-wide competitions.

Photo Supplied

Julie Van Rosendaal’s Sticky Baked Ham

“This is my go-to baked ham recipe. It’s practically foolproof, requiring the cook only to unwrap the ham and put it in the oven, then paint it with brown sugar-mustard-balsamic toward the end of its cooking time. It’s perfect for serving a large crowd, especially when you have a range of ages and appetites — it can sit out on the buffet and is just fine as it cools. I always make a batch of biscuits to go alongside, so people can make little sandwiches if they like.”

   •     1 5-6 lb. bone-in ham

   •     1/4-1/2 cup brown sugar

   •     1/2 cup grainy mustard

   •     1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Place your ham in a baking dish or cast iron skillet and bake for about an hour. (Alternatively, put it in a large slow cooker, cover and cook on low for four to six hours, then remove from the slow cooker and put in a baking dish.)

Meanwhile, in a small dish, stir together the brown sugar, mustard and vinegar. Brush all over the surface of the ham and return to the oven for another 20-30 minutes, brushing once or twice with the glaze.

Serve warm. Serves lots.

Photo Supplied

Christmas in November host Nik Manojlovich adapted the Christmas Morning Wife Saver using some of his favourite ingredients. This version, adapted from the original casserole from Best of Bridge, uses the traditional Jewish braided bread called challah, which is slightly sweet and rich with eggs.

Nik's Mom Saver


1 loaf challah bread, crusts removed and reserved

1/2 lb. parma ham, thinly sliced

1/2 lb. Gruyere cheese, thinly sliced

6 eggs beaten

2 cups homogenized milk

1 cup 35 per cent cream

1 tbsp. Pommery mustard

1/4 cup shallots, finely chopped

1/4 cup artichoke chopped

1 tsp. dried savoury

2 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 cup challah crust breadcrumbs

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste


Butter a 9 x 13-inch glass casserole dish. Trim crusts off challah slices and set aside — they’ll be used for the topping.

Place challah slices in single layer on the bottom of the casserole dish. Cover with slices of ham, followed by slices of cheese. Add an additional layer of bread.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together eggs, milk, cream, mustard, shallots, artichoke and savoury. Pour egg mixture over casserole. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 350 F.

To prepare topping, toast challah crusts then pulse in a food processor to a rough crumb consistency. Toss crumbs in two tablespoons of melted butter. Add grated parmesan and sprinkle entire mix over the top of the casserole dish.

Transer to oven and bake for 55 minutes. Allow casserole to sit for 10 minutes before serving.


Serves 8.