The Strata Strategy

With all the coming and going this season, the last thing any of us wants to worry about on a travel morning is breakfast. But putting hungry kids in the car or dragging them through the airport in search of decent food is a recipe for frustration. The option is usually a blast of packaged sugar and carbs which means lots of bouncing off walls.

Then there’s the other holiday travel reality of being a visitor or being visited. Either way, it’s hard to come up with a group breakfast that isn’t a hassle. If you are the host, you want to make sure you can make stuff ahead. If you are the guest, you want to be helpful and cook at least one meal (well, you do if you want to be invited back!).

This is when I fall back on my strata strategy. If you didn’t have a mom who made these things back in the days, let me explain what a strata is: bread layered with cheese and other yummy things that’s soaked in eggs and puffs up like a sturdy souffle in the oven. Think of stratas as savory bread puddings. Think of them as breakfast casseroles, or “hot dishes” as they say in the Midwest. Think of them as a make-ahead, all-in-one solution to the above scenarios.

Here’s how it works. The night before you are traveling or hosting guests or preparing a meal for your hosts (say at a friend’s ski house), tear up bread, beat some eggs and milk, pour that over the bread, add a few other ingredients, then place the dish in the fridge. In the morning, get up, slide it into a COLD oven, turn on the oven, and go back to bed … or finish packing, dressing, showering, whatever. It bakes while you do something else. If you want to gussy it up, serve with fruit and baked goods, but that’s not necessary for the quick, out-the-door family meal on a travel day.

The other key to the strata strategy is that the recipe can be varied endlessly. The one below is a universal pleaser with ham and cheese. If you want it vegetarian, substitute cooked broccoli, asparagus, spinach, or Swiss Chard for the ham. Or use cooked sausage. Or any other cheese (even goat cheese).

Ham & Cheese Breakfast Strata
Serves 6

room temperature butter for greasing dish
1 pound loaf soft French or Italian bread (not sourdough), such as Pugliese
12 ounces thick-cut baked ham or ham steak, fat trimmed off, cut into cubes
1-1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) grated Monterey jack cheese
freshly ground black pepper
6 eggs
2 cups whole milk
3 green onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup shredded Asiago or Parmesan cheese

The night before, rub the bottom and sides of a 13x9x2–inch baking dish with butter. Cut the bread in half crosswise, then again lengthwise to give you open-faced quarters. Tear out the insides of the bread and tear into small pieces, getting every last bit of white from the crusts (save the crusts to make breadcrumbs in the food processor for another time).

Spread half the bread in the bottom of the buttered dish. In a food processor, pulse the ham until finely minced (or finely chop by hand). Sprinkle half the ham and half the cheese over the bread, then repeat with remaining bread, ham, and cheese. Grind fresh pepper over the top. In a bowl, whisk the eggs and milk together, then whisk in the green onions. Pour over the bread-ham mixture, then with a large rubber spatula, fold ingredients gently until bread is moistened. Spread the mixture evenly in the dish. Cover dish tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, remove the plastic wrap. Sprinkle the top of the strata with the Asiago or Parmesan cheese, then cover dish tightly with foil. Slide into a cold oven and turn the oven to 350°F. Bake until the strata starts to puff and eggs look set, about 35 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until golden, crusty, and delicious smelling, about 25 minutes more. Serve at once.

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If you are craving something sweet, not savory, check out the French Toast Bread Pudding on my website. It’s just a fancy name for a good old strata.

Tori Ritchie is a San Francisco-based cooking teacher and cookbook author whose website tuesdayrecipe.com features a new recipe sent to your inbox every week. She travels often to Italy, but has yet to find the original “strata” recipe, despite its Italian name.

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