What’s cool about a strata is that you can use it to transform many of those odds and ends lurking in the refrigerator into the festive star of a brunch or luncheon. No one will accuse you of loving them less for serving leftovers when you present this deliciously custardy and cheesy bread pudding.
You can work most of the magic the day before, prepping the ingredients and assembling the dish, alternating bread, vegetables or meat and cheese (“strata” is Latin for “layers”) before pouring in the milk and eggs that will mortar it all together. Then, just pop the strata into a hot oven to bake an hour before you’re planning to serve. Add a simple salad and a pitcher of mimosas and you’ve got a party to remember.
Funny thing is, while television celebrity chef Sara Moulton reports individual strata showing up as side dishes at smart Manhattan restaurants, this homey casserole has never really enjoyed the spotlight like its ritzy cousin, the quiche.
“There are not a lot of strata-makers,” says Joanne Chang, the Boston restaurateur behind three branches of Flour Bakery Cafe, and partner, with husband Christopher Myers, in a funky pan-Asian diner called Myers Chang.
“It’s funny because I’ve been doing it since I opened the bakery 10 years ago,” says Chang, author of the new Flour cookbook (Chronicle, $35) with Christine Matheson. “When I told Chris [Parsons, Flour’s first chef] I wanted to make a savory bread pudding, he thought I was nuts. A lot of chefs don’t think of it because it sounds like a pastry.”
But it’s so easy. A strata is essentially a baked custard or, as Chang puts it, a “shortcut way” to make a quiche without the need to make and pre-bake a pie crust or tart shell.
Like a quiche, a strata appeals because of its custardy, cheesy quality, says Moulton, whose latest book is Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners (Simon & Schuster, $35).
“Anything you throw cheese into is just superb,” says Moulton, who used to whip up many a strata as executive chef for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine. “A strata is yet another excuse to throw cheese into something.”
A strata is also a way to use up any surplus, stale, non-sweet bread. Chang recommends tossing any leftover bread directly into the freezer and stockpiling it for a strata.
While an overnight stint in the refrigerator gives the bread ample time to absorb the eggs, milk and seasonings, Moulton says, a strata can be left to soak for one hour or can be popped immediately in the oven, depending on your schedule.
What you bake the strata in will also affect the finished dish. A shallower container, like a gratin dish, will result in a crispier strata, Moulton notes, while a strata baked in a deep souffle dish won’t have the same degree of crunch.
Moulton says the big trick in making a strata is to ensure the dish doesn’t overcook or bake at too high a temperature. Too much heat will cause the eggs to curdle, she says.
Chang believes making a strata is a “good way to clean out your fridge” but cautions that you want to use ingredients that are still viable — don’t go with over-the-hill food.
“Really, this dish is meant to be created with the bits and ends of meats and veggies and cheeses,” she writes about her wild mushroom, greens and Parmesan strata recipe. “You won’t believe the delicious result from such humble beginnings.”
Wild Mushroom, Winter Greens and Parmesan Strata
Prep: 30 minutes Chill: Overnight Cook: 40 minutes Makes: 10 servings
Chang encourages improvisation when making this recipe. Some suggested variations: sausage, sage and heirloom apple (omit thyme, greens, mushrooms, garlic, shallots, Parmesan); or go Asian with ham, ginger, soy sauce and green onions (cut the nutmeg, cheese, thyme). Leftover strata may be refrigerated for up to three days well-covered — reheat in 300-degree oven until heated through, about 10-15 minutes.
6 cups day-old bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
6 egg yolks 2 eggs
1/4 cup flour
4 cups half-and-half
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh thyme
1 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 clove garlic, smashed
2 cups lightly packed winter greens, such as escarole or kale, chopped
2 shallots, sliced
3/4 cup each: shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Place bread in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish or roasting pan. Whisk together yolks, eggs and flour in a medium bowl. Whisk in half-and-half, 1 teaspoon of the salt, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper and nutmeg. Pour mixture over the bread. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate overnight.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet on high heat. Add garlic and greens; cook, stirring, until greens are wilted, 2-3 minutes. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Remove greens from skillet; set aside. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil; heat on high. Add the shallots and mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are browned, 4-5 minutes. Season with remaining 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Remove mushroom mix from skillet.
Add greens, mushrooms, shallots and 3/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese to the soaked bread. Sprinkle top evenly with remaining 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Bake until browned and set, 35-40 minutes. Let rest for 15 minutes at room temperature. Cut into squares; serve warm.
Nutrition information Per serving: 349 calories, 62% of calories from fat, 24 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 212 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 13 g protein, 871 mg sodium, 1 g fiber