May it Please the Palate: Breakfast for 246

"SELMA Café" is a breakfast salon in Ann Arbor that has been going strong for more than 3 years ( Originally conceived as a one-off fund-raiser for the local food movement, it has evolved into a weekly Friday breakfast, in the home of Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb. Guest chefs prepare breakfast for the public, featuring food that is fresh, seasonal, and local. Donations go to provide micro-loans to community farmers, which may be used, for example, for building "hoop houses" that allow four-season growing. Breakfasts can be very creative. Chefs from the best restaurants in metro Detroit have participated. Or not, as I have been a guest chef at SELMA about 6-8 times--usually with a partner. I have reasoned that it is easier to indulge my passion for cooking on the side, than to have been a full time chef that practices law on the side. Still, my large-scale cooking chops are a bit rusty. Until last Friday, when I had an opportunity to experience the frenzy of an unexpectedly busy restaurant. In SELMA's early years, 60-100 guests were normal. Numbers have crept closer to 200, but right after a nice radio story, a recent crowd was a staggering 264 - shattering the old record by nearly 60. Yet that was seen as an aberration. When I most recently "cheffed," we planned for about 200. Partnering with Chef Kelli Harden (Elks Neighborhood Kitchen, Ann Arbor), we decided to serve two specials. The first was Eggs Benedict with a chive hollandaise sauce, starring Canadian bacon from Biercamp in Ann Arbor, selling natural Michigan cured meats. For vegetarians, we substituted spinach sautéed with ramps (a delicacy analogous to a strong and garlicky leek or green onion). This special was served with simple roasted potatoes and a green salad garnish of "hoop greens," with a lemon vinaigrette. The second special was pancakes with chocolate chips from Mindo, a gourmet chocolate shop in Dexter, accompanied by fresh cream whipped with crème fraiche and brown sugar, maple syrup, and bacon. Lisa told us to plan for selling 80 of each special. Kelli overcompensated and prepared 105 homemade English muffins for the Eggs Benedict. Any restaurateur will tell you that projecting the number of guests, or what they will eat, is nothing more than educated guessing. We guessed wrong. It was an Eggs Benedict eggs-stravaganza. We had 168 orders, twice what we'd planned. After running out of English muffins, we managed to find two loaves of frozen challah. When that ran out, someone found another frozen assortment of Zingerman's bread slices. (It was kind of like using every scrap of leavened bread in the house in preparation for Passover.) We also ran out of the 20 pounds of slow roasted potatoes we had prepared in advance. Volunteers frantically scrubbed and finely diced another 10-pound bag. I sautéed them in a hurry with garlic. We also had an explosion of vegetarian orders and ran out of spinach. A jar of frozen fire-roasted tomatoes magically appeared, so we sautéed those instead. The hollandaise was another matter entirely. That sauce, which I've made about three times in 20 years, is a high maintenance witch that must be fawned over constantly. On one occasion, whipping up a new batch, I heated the eggs to a perfect thick froth, ready for the butter. Then I had the stupid wherewithal to glance at my phone when I got the buzz of a text or call. Viola--scrambled eggs. SELMA is open 6:30 to 10 a.m. Planning this day, I thought I'd be able to make a 10:30 meeting. Instead, people were still being seated well after 10. By the time we fed the volunteers, it was 11 a.m. Finally, 246 diners later - the second highest number in more than 3 years--we congratulated each other, thanked our volunteers, and I learned firsthand why breakfast cooks aren't shy about cracking a beer after the morning rush. Besides the 168 Eggs Benedict, we had only 41 pancake orders, plus the usual assortment of waffles, bread pudding, and granola, which are weekly mainstays on the SELMA menu. Chocolate chip pancakes, anyone? We're still swimming in batter. Chef Kelli's English muffins were easy to make and a big hit with everyone. Her recipe (via her fiancé, Chef Dan Klenotic) follows: English Muffins * 2 1/4 cups flour * 1/2 Tbsp sugar * 1/4 tsp salt * 1-1/4 tsp instant yeast * 1 Tbsp shortening or butter (at room temperature) * 3/4 to 1 cup milk (at room temperature) * cornmeal for sprinkling In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Mix in the shortening and 3/4 cup of the milk. Add the remaining milk if the dough is too dry. Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and roll to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise for about an hour. Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces and shape into balls. Lay parchment paper on a baking sheet and spray or lightly coat with oil and sprinkle with cornmeal. Move the dough balls to the baking sheet evenly spaced apart (giving them room to rise more). Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and allow them to rise for another hour. Heat the oven to 350 F and heat up a skillet on medium heat on the stovetop. Brush the skillet with oil and gently transfer the dough balls to the skillet a few at a time. Allow them to cook on the skillet for 5-8 minutes, until the bottoms are nicely browned. Carefully flip and cook the other side for about 5-8 minutes more. (You can pat them down slightly, but not too much or not at all --they should flatten as they cook.) When the muffins look as if they are about to burn, remove them from the skillet with a spatula and transfer quickly to a baking sheet. Bake at 350 for 5-8 minutes. Do not wait until all of the muffins have been cooked on the skillet before moving them to the oven--as the first batch is baking, move the second batch of muffins to the skillet. Transfer the baked muffins to a cooling rack and let cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing or serving. Store them as you would muffins you buy in the store--in a sealed Ziploc bag in the refrigerator or freezer. Additional tip, from the school of hard knocks: make twice as many as you think you'll need. And it won't hurt to have a cold beer or two handy. You may need it before that noon meeting, which I somehow managed to attend. Nick Roumel is an attorney with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, P.C., a law firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine. He can be reached at: nroumel Published: Thu, Apr 26, 2012