The first time I had strata I was in a vacation house with close friends and hungover. I had no idea what I was in for. When I dug into the rich, comforty goodness, I knew I had come home, my perfect brunch food had been found. Like a warm fuzzy blanket that reaches in and wraps itself around your core, then massages your heart, rubs your tummy, and banishes all sadness, anxiety, jealousy, envy, spite, and even regret which is an invaluable boon when you have over-indulged the night before.
Bread pudding is one of my favorite desserts and strata is like the savory morning version of the best bread pudding you ever had.
JC and I had our families out to our house near Joshua Tree for Thanksgiving last year and this strata starred at our Day After brunch. Even my sister, who is extremely health conscious, couldn’t help but take a second serving. It’s just a stunner that will make everyone at your table feel intensely the sun streaming in the windows (or snuggle in against the cold.) It’s that good.
Some height-of-the-summer, oven roasted tomatoes might be the only thing you need to serve with this sterling one-pot dish. To drink, strong, hot coffee would be perfect. Or maybe a lightly effervescent white with just a whisper of fruit, like the Lambrusco we get at Trader Joe’s for $2.99/bottle. Or serve a dry sparkling wine with a demure dash of orange or peach juice. But don’t make it a mimosa; strata don’t need “bottomless” drinks.
Breakfast Strata with Spinach & Gruyere
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
8-10 slices of good, hearty artisan bread (1/2-3/4 inch thick)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (you could lose up to 4 tablespoons of this)
2 medium shallots or ½ medium onion, minced
1 lb spinach
ground black pepper
1/2 cup medium dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
6 oz Gruyere cheese, grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 large eggs
1 3/4 cups half-and-half or milk
2-3 links high quality Italian sausage
1. When you are ready to bake, adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees. Arrange bread in single layer on large baking sheet and bake until dry and crisp, about 1 hour, turning slices over halfway through drying time. (Alternatively, cover slices with a clean dish towel and leave them to dry overnight.) When cooled, butter slices on one side and set aside.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a stock pot over medium heat. Add spinach and cook, turning the whole thing multiple times until all of the leaves are fully wilted, about 6 minutes. (You could also zap the spinach in the microwave, 2 minutes on high.) Set the cooked spinach in a strainer or colander and press with the back of wooden spoon to squeeze out all the excess liquid. When it’s cooled, chop roughly.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a medium skillet. Sauté shallots or onions until fragrant and translucent; about 3 minutes; add spinach and salt and pepper to taste and cook stirring occasionally, until spinach and shallots or onions are combined, about 2 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl, set aside. Add wine to skillet, increase heat to medium high and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, 2-3 minutes; set aside. Remove the sausage from its casing and brown in the skillet over medium heat until cooked through. Crumble the sausage into pieces about the size of a quarter.
4. Butter a 2.5 quart baking dish; arrange half the buttered bread slices, buttered side up, in single layer in dish. Sprinkle half of spinach mixture, half the sausage and then 1/2 cup grated cheese evenly over bread slices. Arrange remaining bread slices in single layer over cheese; sprinkle remaining spinach mixture, sausage and top with ½ cup cheese. Reserve the last ½ cup of cheese.
5. Whisk eggs in medium bowl until combined; whisk in reduced wine, half and half, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. Pour egg mixture evenly over bread layers. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic down onto the surface before securing the sides. Use weights, another baking dish or bags of flour or sugar to make sure the bread soaks in the eggs and refrigerate overnight.
6. Remove dish from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature 20 minutes. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Uncover strata and sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese evenly over surface. Bake until both edges and center are puffed and edges have pulled away slightly from sides of dish. Cool on wire rack 5 minutes before serving.
– You could add a pinch or two of herbs to the egg mixture before you pour it onto the bread. Thyme is my favorite, but herbs de Provence, chervil, marjoram might be nice. If using fresh oregano or rosemary, go easy. Those guys tend to overpower other flavors. I’d stay away from basil and tarragon though.
– You can make strata with almost any ingredient you’d be happy to find in an omelet. You just need thick dried out bread slices, the custard and some kind of cheese. You could try cheddar, bacon and mushroom. Or asparagus instead of spinach. Or leeks instead of shallots. Or add caramelized garlic. Just make sure that whatever you add doesn’t weep too much liquid. Eg, uncooked tomatoes will turn your strata runny. I recently saw a recipe for a goat cheese one with braised greens and poached eggs that looked super slutty. Experiment. Have fun!
– If the only baking dish you have is 9×13 lasagna pan, slice the bread on the slender side so you can get your layers to fit. If you have a deep dish, you can go thicker on the slices.