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A BUNCH FOR BRUNCH

The word "brunch" isn't in a lot of dictionaries. It's come into common use only in the last few years.

And we're awfully glad it has, because the combination of breakfast and lunch makes it easy to throw a party during the holiday season.

If you're entertaining a lot of people, serve a brunch (typically between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) buffet style so guests can help themselves as many times as they like.

And, utilize as many level surfaces as you can. Card tables, snack tables, even an old kitchen or picnic table dragged into the living room and covered with something pretty will do.

You don't even to set those tables ahead of time. Your guests can pick up plates, napkins and silverware from the buffet table.

As for making up a menu, try to offer both breakfast and lunch dishes, and consider something that folks don't get to eat every day. We'll offer some ideas later.

But before we begin, realize that a great big pot of coffee kept at the ready is just about essential to this kind of party. Hot cocoa is great for youngsters. Put it in a crock pot to keep it warm.

Pitchers of fruit juice also are appreciated. You might want to provide plain orange juice in one pitcher and orange juice mixed with champagne in another. That combination makes up a Mimosa -- all the more festive if you put a great big strawberry in every glass.

A non-alcoholic eye opener: a mixture of orange juice and cranberry juice, sparked up with an addition of club soda at the last minute.

Other fruits are welcome at this time of day.

Make up a great big fresh fruit cup the day before the party, sprinkling fresh lemon juice over apples and pears so they don't darken. Add bananas at the last minute. The fruit cup should be served cold.

You can also serve fruit hot (make it up ahead of time and pop it in the oven just before the guests arrive), and it's nice to have at least one or two other hot dishes on the buffet.

Egg dishes represent the breakfast side of the menu. But you're looking for do-ahead egg dishes so you aren't stuck in the kitchen. Orange French Toast can be done ahead of time and so can Puffy Breakfast Strata.

Bacon or sausage is a standard accompaniment.

To represent lunch, offer baked turkey breast, which slices beautifully and can be served with a mushroom or fruit sauce on the side. The same can be said for baked ham, topped for the holiday season with a festive maple glaze.

Remember to provide plenty of festive breads for your guests to enjoy.

Try quick Sticky Biscuits. The night before the party: Butter the bottom and sides of a 1 1/2 -quart mold or souffle dish. Mix 1/2 cup melted butter with 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar. Pour into bottom of prepared mold or dish. Sprinkle 1 cup roughly chopped pecans evenly over melted mixture. Cover and refrigerate.

On the morning of the party: Place pan in oven as it preheats to 375 degrees. When butter mixture is melted, remove from oven; arrange about eight unbaked refrigerated buttermilk biscuits in an even layer. Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and invert onto a plate.

For desserts you'll want something that speaks of the holiday. Christmas cookies, of course, do that very well.

Here are some recipes to try:

BAKED ORANGE FRENCH TOAST

8 slices French bread, cut 3/4 to 1-inch thick

6eggs

Grated rind of 1 large orange

2/3 cup orange juice

1/3 cup orange liqueur

1 cup half-and-half

3 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons butter, optional

Confectioners' sugar for dusting

Butter a 9-inch square pan. Lay bread slices evenly in pan. Combine eggs, orange rind, orange juice, liqueur, half-and-half and sugar; pour over bread. Dot with butter, cut in small pieces if desired. Refrigerate.

In the morning, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until puffed and set. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Recipe can be doubled or tripled as long as the bread stays in one layer in pan or pans.

Note: If desired, serve with a topping of butter and orange marmalade melted together in the microwave. Or, serve with maple syrup.

BREAKFAST STRATA

6 eggs

3 cups half-and-half

3/4 teaspoon white pepper

3/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1 loaf of white sandwich bread, crust removed, cubed

1 1/2 pounds extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated

Butter a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Beat eggs and mix with half-and-half, pepper and mustard. Layer 1/3 of the bread in the casserole. Top with 1/2 of the cheese. Repeat layers until all ingredients are used up. Pour liquid mixture evenly over casserole. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 30 minutes, until puffed and golden. Cut into squares and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Variations: For a spicier version, mix in 1 cup salsa and bake 5 minutes longer, or add canned diced green chiles to taste. For a heartier version, add 1 pound of browned breakfast sausage. You can also substitute different cheeses, such as gouda, Provolone or Jack cheese, for cheddar.

BAKED WINTER FRUIT SALAD

3 cups mixed dried fruits, like apricots, apples, peaches, pears, figs, raisins and pitted prunes

6 clementines, broken into wedges

1 1/4 cups medium-dry sherry

1 1/2 cups apple cider OR orange juice

1 cinnamon stick

Yogurt OR heavy cream for topping

Place all the fruits, sherry and cider in a large bowl. Mix well and then cover and let sit overnight at room temperature.

The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the fruits in a large baking dish with the liquid. Add the cinnamon stick. Cover the dish with foil.

Bake until liquid bubbles and fruit is very soft, about 45 minutes. Serve hot with yogurt or sour cream. Makes 8 servings.

RASPBERRY TRIFLE

3 cups milk

1 package (4 1/2 -ounce) non-instant vanilla pudding mix

1 small pound cake

1/2 cup sherry or orange juice

1/2 cup seedless raspberry preserves

2 cups heavy cream

6 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen raspberries, thawed and drained

1/2 pint fresh raspberries for garnish

1/4 cup sliced almonds for garnish

Heat the milk in a heavy saucepan until bubbles appear. Stir in the the pudding mix and keep stirring until mixture begins to boil and is thickened. Cool pudding slightly and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate pudding until it is cold.

Slice the pound cake in half lengthwise. Sprinkle sherry or orange juice on the cut surfaces. Spread the preserves on the bottom half of the cake and replace the top. Slice the cake, like a loaf of bread into 1/2 -inch slices, keeping the slices together.

Beat 1 cup of cream until thickened, gradually adding half the sugar. Gently fold into the pudding. Place cake slices along the bottom of a large glass bowl. Add half the thawed raspberries, followed by half the pudding. Repeat. Cover and refrigerate.

About an hour or so before serving, garnish with the remaining cream that has been whipped with the remaining sugar. Top with fresh raspberries and sprinkle the almonds around the edge. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Last two recipes adapted from "The Entertaining Survival Guide" by Lora Brody, William Morrow and Company, 1994.

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