Breakfast strata, before hitting the oven
If there's one thing the holidays need more of, it's order. Structure. A plan. (And yes, that's still one thing.)
At our house, the holidays have been filled with wonderful distractions like Christmas pageants, decorating the home, entertaining friends, shopping, making gifts and often school exams. To keep on track with three children, I relied on make-ahead recipes I could stash in the fridge and freezer.
That meant soups cooked now and frozen to heat up later in the month. That meant stocking up on ingredients like pecans and country ham, which were used throughout the holiday season. And that meant making the one recipe for a breakfast casserole we would serve on Christmas morning.
The recipe has been around for generations, but we've updated it and created a new tradition with it. It's the old sausage and egg breakfast casserole which we first renamed "Ham and Cheese Overnight Souffle." Now, minus-ham, we simply call it our “Do-Ahead Breakfast Strata.”
Updating Tired Family Recipes
The first time I made a breakfast casserole was back in high school. My mother bought the Tennessee Pride country sausage, white bread, mild Cheddar cheese and eggs, and handed me a recipe she had found in a community cookbook. I followed that recipe to the "T," and everyone loved the casserole because it was yummy and had an almost soufflé-like consistency.
If you think about it, overnight casseroles are an old, make-do kind of recipe. It's the same idea as French toast, where you soak day-old bread in beaten eggs and milk, softening it and giving it new life. The French call this "pain perdu," which means "lost bread." I've always loved the idea that lost, stale bread can be born-again, just by soaking it in beaten eggs and frying it up in butter. And I love that stale bread can be cut into cubes to form the building blocks of a terrific holiday recipe.
But as delicious as that classic breakfast casserole recipe was, these days it's just not modern enough to serve. It begs for reinvention and creativity, and a new ingredient list wouldn’t hurt. So, several years back, when my younger daughter was in high school, I gave her my mother's recipe for breakfast casserole and asked her to jazz it up for Christmas morning breakfast.
The first year, she used finely chopped ham instead of the cooked and crumbled sausage. We didn't have mild Cheddar cheese, so she used a bold and sharp Vermont Cheddar. It was superb. The next year that casserole was even better, bright with crunch and color (from the sautéed onions and peppers), and even more flavorful, with the addition of Parmesan. She stuck with the chopped ham, but we felt a little guilty about her aunt – my sister – who is vegetarian and joins us for Christmas breakfast. "Next year, I'm going to lose the ham," she proclaimed. And that next year, the ham was, indeed, 86ed.
The blend of cheeses stayed. The sauté of veggies stayed. By year three, the casserole really came into its own. It was made entirely of soft, spongy Italian bread, cut into cubes. My daughter added a pinch of nutmeg and cayenne pepper. The 1970s recipe had received a much-needed facelift.
Building a Perfect Breakfast Strata Starts with a Blueprint
This recipe works because the eggs and milk mixture soaks well into the bread overnight. The bread is the binder, and the eggs provide the boost to help the casserole rise. Anything you add to the casserole outside of the eggs, milk, and bread is flavoring, and color.
So if you think about it, all you've got to get right – the blueprint – are the bread, eggs, and milk. You can take a bit of license with the rest.
From years of experience, I'd say the best bread is soft and spongy. We've tried it with crusty French bread and we've made it with whole wheat. But the best is soft, spongy loaf bread – the kind that’s sold in the supermarket deli. Cut off the crust for a softer consistency, or leave some crust on for texture; it’s totally up to you. It really doesn't matter if the loaf is fresh or stale. Just cut it into 1/2-inch cubes and measure by lightly packing into a dry cup measure.
As for the milk, use whole milk if you have it; this makes a creamier casserole. But if you don't have whole milk, use skim or reduced-fat milk. You can add a splash of heavy cream to the skim milk to raise the butterfat content and make an even richer consistency.
The rest is up to you. Sauté veggies in the fridge, use your favorite combination of cheeses, then cover the oven-safe casserole dish with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge to rest overnight. The next morning, you simply preheat the oven, uncover the casserole, scatter buttered cracker crumbs on top of the casserole and place it in the oven to bake for nearly an hour, or until it is puffed up and golden.
The real upside to this recipe is that it is money in the bank. It is sitting there all prepped in the fridge, and all you must do on Christmas or New Year’s morning (or any other busy time of the season when guests are staying in your home and you have family coming over for brunch etc.), is preheat the oven, then pull the rest of the meal together.
Slice the ham, fry up the sausage, slice fruit, and pour coffee or Bloodies. And get everyone to the table. Because in about an hour your breakfast strata will puff up and get golden-brown, and look fabulously important. And it will fall slightly, but will be just as delicious nevertheless. This timeless family recipe never disappoints and is being slowly reinvented by cooks every Christmas morning.
Get the recipe
Make-Ahead Breakfast Strata
Serves: 10 to 12
Hands-on time: 30 minutes
Total time: 9 1/2 hours
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced red bell pepper
10 slices soft Italian-style bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1 cup (4 ounces) finely minced ham, if desired
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 cups milk
6 large eggs
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of cayenne or nutmeg, if desired
1 cup crushed Ritz or buttery round crackers (about 16 crackers)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with nonstick oil spray.
Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Scatter half of the bread cubes in the baking dish. Top with the ham, if desired, followed by the cheeses and the onion and pepper mixture. Cover with the remaining bread cubes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, mustard and cayenne, if desired. Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes and press down to submerge them in the liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the baking dish from the fridge and discard the plastic wrap.
In a small bowl, toss the cracker crumbs with the melted butter. Using your fingers, scatter the crumb mixture over the top of the soaked bread cubes. Bake until golden brown, about 1 hour. Serve at once.