The Simple Art of the Overnight Breakfast Casserole - No. 69
How strata turns squishy bread into perfection
When you layer bread, milk, eggs, and cheese, they transform into something otherworldly, known in fancy places as “strata” - pronounced with two long “ahs” - or as we say in Nashville, overnight breakfast casserole! My daughter Litton assembled this recipe each Christmas Eve to be baked the next morning. She tweaked it ever so slightly each year, and what resulted was a formula we could adapt with pretty much anything in the fridge. Sadly, she isn’t home for Christmas this year, but I’ve got her recipe and am feeling confident…
OUR HOLIDAYS WERE FILLED WITH CHRISTMAS PAGEANTS, decorations, having friends over, shopping, making gifts, and end-of-year exams. To keep on track with three children, I relied on do-ahead recipes I could stash in the fridge and freezer.
That meant soups cooked now and frozen to heat up later in the month, ordering my pecans and country ham ahead of time, and making a breakfast casserole in advance for Christmas morning.
The idea had been around for generations, but our family made it our own.
Often our best recipes are born-again
The first time I made breakfast casserole was in high school. My mother bought 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 with its souffle-like consistency.
If you think about it, overnight casseroles are a lot like French toast where you soak day-old bread in beaten eggs and milk to soften the bread, giving it new life. The French call this "pain perdu," which translates to "lost bread."
(I've wondered if stale - “lost’’ - bread is some sort of hopeful metaphor for all of us feeling a bit stale in 2021. But that’s a column for another day…)
And as delicious as that breakfast casserole recipe was when I first made it, well, it begged for reinvention. So, several years back, when my younger daughter was in high school, I handed her my mother's recipe and asked her to jazz it up for Christmas morning.
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. Superb!
And the next year that casserole was even better, bright with crunch and color from the sauteed 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, Mom, I'm going to lose the ham.’’
And that next year, the ham was, indeed, 86ed. The blend of cheeses stayed. The saute of veggies stayed. By year three, the casserole really came into its own. My daughter added a pinch of nutmeg and cayenne pepper.
Baking strata perfection from a blueprint
Our recipe works because the egg and milk mixture soaks into the bread overnight. The bread is the binder, and the eggs 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 is the bread, eggs, and milk. You can take a bit of license with the rest.
We once tried making our beloved casserole with crusty French bread as well as whole wheat, but the best bread turned out to be a soft, spongy loaf from the supermarket deli.
As for the milk, we use whole milk if we 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 a richer consistency.
The rest is up to you. Saute veggies. Use your favorite combination of cheeses. And then cover the oven-safe casserole dish with plastic wrap and place 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 bake for nearly an hour, or until it is puffed up and golden.
The real upside to this recipe is that it’s sitting there prepped in the fridge, and all you have to do is preheat the oven.
Then pull the rest of the meal together. Slice the ham, fry up the sausage, slice fruit, pour coffee or Bloodies. Get everyone to the table. Because in about an hour your breakfast strata will puff up golden-brown and look fabulously important.
And then it will fall, but nevertheless, be that timeless family treasure that never disappoints as it is slowly reinvented every Christmas morning.
What’s your timeless holiday recipe that never disappoints?
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And now… the strah-tah recipe…
The Overnight Breakfast Casserole
One year I asked my friend LouAnn about a wonderful strata she served at the stroke of midnight one New Year’s Eve. The secret, she explained, was soft bread - you should be able to squish it in your hands. Could this have been why my mother chose hamburger buns to add lightness to her cornbread dressing? Cut off the crust for a softer consistency, or leave some crust on for more texture. And it 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. I’ve kept the ham in the recipe that follows, but feel free to omit for your favorite vegetarians.
Makes 8 generous servings
Bake: 55 minutes to 1 hour
Vegetable oil spray for misting the pan
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
1/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced red bell pepper
10 slices soft Italian-style bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (4 cups)
1 cup finely minced ham (about 4 ounces), if desired
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded very sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
6 large eggs
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of cayenne pepper or nutmeg, if desired
1 cup crushed Ritz or buttery round crackers (about 16)
4 tablespoons unsalted, butter, melted
1. Lightly mist a 13-by 9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Set aside.
2. Place the olive oil or butter in a small skillet and place over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper, and reduce the heat to medium. Stir and saute until the veggies soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside.
3. Scatter half of the bread cubes in the baking dish. Top with the ham, if desired, the cheeses, and the onion and pepper mixture. Add the remaining bread cubes. Set the baking dish aside.
4. Place the eggs, milk, mustard, and cayenne or nutmeg, if desired, in a medium-size bowl and whisk to combine. Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes and press down on them to immerse them in the liquid. Cover the dish with plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator overnight.
5. The next morning, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap. Toss the cracker crumbs and melted butter in a small bowl. Using your fingers, scatter the crumb mixture over the top of the soaked bread cubes. Place the dish in the oven, and bake until the casserole bakes up golden brown, about 55 minutes to 1 hour. Serve at once. (And you can reheat leftovers in the microwave on day two.)
Have a great holiday week!