Bread pudding conjures up sweet, dessert memories for most people, but this homey dish has a savory side too. It's called a strata, and you can even serve it for breakfast.
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.
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“There are not a lot of strata-makers,” said Joanne Chang, the Boston restaurateur behind three branches of Flour Bakery+Cafe, and partner, with her 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,” said 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 but 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, said Moulton, whose latest book is “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners” (Simon & Schuster, $35).
“Anything you throw cheese into is just superb,” said Moulton, who used to whip up many a strata as executive chef for the now- defunct “Gourmet” magazine.
A strata is also a way to use up any surplus, stale nonsweet 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 said, 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 impact the finished dish. A shallower container, such as a gratin dish, will result in a crispier strata, Moulton noted, 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 said.
Chicken Sausage and Apple Strata
Time: 15 minutes prep, 45 minutes cooking; Yield: 12 servings
2 teaspoons oil
2 pounds chicken apple sausage, thinly sliced
2 large Granny Smith apples, thinly sliced
12 pieces day-old white bread, cubed
9 eggs, slightly beaten
3 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cups grated white Cheddar
Heat oil in a large skillet. Add sausage; brown on both sides. Remove sausage to a large bowl. Add apples to the skillet; cook until golden brown. Add to the sausage. Add bread cubes to the bowl. Mix eggs, milk, salt, pepper and mustard in a separate bowl. Add the egg mixture to the sausage mixture. Stir in 1 cup of the cheese. Cover; refrigerate overnight.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Pour the egg mixture into a greased 12-inch skillet or 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Bake in the middle of the oven, 30 minutes. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese. Bake until cooked through, about 15 minutes.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 377 calories, 54 percent of calories from fat, 23 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 246 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 995 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Wild Mushroom, Winter Greens and Parmesan Strata
Time: 30 minutes prep, 40 minutes cook; Yield: 10 servings
6 cups day-old bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
6 egg yolks
1/4 cup flour
4 cups half-and-half
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon each: fresh thyme, black pepper
1/4 teaspoon 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 mixture 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.
Note: Joanne Chang, a Boston restaurateur, 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.
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
Ham and Cheese Souffle
Time: 10 minutes prep, 40 minutes cooking; Yield: 4 servings
8 slices homemade-style white bread, crusts removed
1/4 pound thinly sliced cheese (Muenster, provolone, fontina or Gruyere)
2 ounces prosciutto or ham, thinly sliced, optional
2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Arrange 4 slices of the bread on the bottom of a lightly buttered 8-inch square baking dish. Cover each with equal amounts of cheese and the prosciutto. Top with remaining bread.
Beat the eggs lightly in a small bowl. Pour in milk. Add salt; blend well. Pour over the sandwiches, cover, refrigerate 1 hour.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the sandwiches until lightly brown around the edges and set in the center, 40-45 minutes. Serve hot.
Note: Sara Moulton credits her grandmother Ruth for this simple dish, essentially a ham and cheese sandwich transformed into a strata. Use any flavorful melting cheese and pork product, Moulton suggests in her book “Sara Moulton Cooks at Home,” such as cooked bacon, pancetta, prosciutto or country ham. Many strata recipes call for sitting refrigerated overnight; this dish needs just one hour.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 482 calories, 39 percent of calories from fat, 21 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 209 mg cholesterol, 47 g carbohydrates, 25 g protein, 1,379 mg sodium, 2 g fiber