Strata is one of those brunch dishes that's a no brainer, for several reasons... You can make it vegetarian, or not. You can add bacon or ham or sausage. (or all of the above and then some, if you have a family full of meat lovers!) And you can saute up just about any kind of aromatics or vegetables that you have on hand or shred up any type of cheese (or cheeses) that you like. Best of all, you can have it all prepared the night before and just pop it in the oven the next day, so that it's just out of the oven, all brown and bubbly right on time time as your guests are arriving.
I make some version or other of Strata for my brunch buffet every Easter because I know from experience that it's a sure bet. How is that, you ask? Well, I think the fact that there's never any of it left in the pan when the last of my guests is heading for home, makes it a winner - for sure!
On this particular Easter, I just happened to have bacon, mushrooms and cheddar cheese on hand. I also always have milk and eggs in my fridge, so all I had to do was pop out to the store the day before to pick up the bread and I was good to go. You can use just about any dense type of bread for a strata, but I tend to prefer challa (an egg and butter based bread, or brioche if you're in Paris) It soaks up the egg and milk mixture (custard) perfectly and it also lends just a tiny hint of a sweet and buttery flavor to the finished dish.
Bacon Mushroom & Cheddar Strata
Serves 4 to 10
(4 as a main dish or 10 as part of a buffet)
- 1 Lg or 2 Small Loaves Challa Bread
- 1 Lb Bacon
- 12oz Crimini or Button Mushrooms
- 8 Lg Eggs
- 2 Cups Milk
- 2 Cups Cheddar Cheese, shredded
- 2 Tbls Butter
- Kosher Salt
- Fresh Ground Black Pepper
(If you are preparing this and baking it the same day, pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees F.)
1. Remove the crust, cut the bread into 1 and 1/2 to 2 inch cubes and place them in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. Wipe away any excess dirt from the mushrooms with a damp paper towel and slice them into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces.
3. Melt 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms to the pan. Once they're all coated well with the butter, turn up the burner to medium high.
4. Cook the mushrooms, stirring often, until they begin to exude some of their juices. Turn the burner to high, season with a little salt and pepper and stir continually until the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are a rich golden brown. Remove them from the pan and set them aside.
5. Slice the bacon into 1 to 1 and 1/2 inch pieces. Pre-heat a dry, non-stick skillet over medium high heat. When the pan is good and hot (but not smoking) add the bacon and stir it around well with a spatula, to separate the pieces.
6. Cook the bacon, stirring frequently, until it begins to get crispy and browned. Watch it closely once it gets to this stage, because it can go from golden brown to burnt very quickly. (I remove mine as soon as the edges begin to darken slightly, because it will continue to cook/crisp up as it cools)
7. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to a plate covered with 2 or 3 layers of paper towel to absorb any excess grease. Set aside to cool.
8. Place the bread cubes, mushrooms and bacon into a lightly greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish. (a 10 x 10 inch square dish like the one I used will work, too)
9. Crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl and beat them with a whisk or a fork, until well blended.
10. Pour in the 2 cups of milk and continue to whisk it all together.
11. Season the mixture well with salt and pepper and if you want a little extra zing, you can add a pinch or two of some dried herbs, a dash of cayenne pepper or a few drops of your favorite hot sauce.
**Tip: I'd say that the best herbs to use with this combination would be either thyme, marjoram or a tiny bit of sage. A pinch of dry mustard powder will also add a little zest and a mild warmth to the dish. Just make sure to mix any of these seasonings into the eggs and milk very thoroughly. You wouldn't want anyone getting a bite that had a big clump of herbs or especially dry mustard in it. LOL
12. Add about 2/3 of the shredded cheese. (I used a mix of both sharp and mild Cheddars on this occasion, but you can use whatever type of cheese you like. Just make sure that it's a cheese that melts well and that won't overpower the other flavors in the strata)
13. Gently fold all of the ingredients together in the pan, making sure that the ingredients are equally distributed. You want each bite that your guests take, to contain a nice blend of all of the flavors in the dish.
14. Pour your egg and milk mixture over the top and once it's all in there, use a spatula or the back of a spoon to gently press the bread down in the pan a bit. This will help all of that liquid absorb into the bread, so there won't be any pieces of dried out bread once it's been baked.
14a. If you are making and baking the strata the same day, once the egg and milk mixture has been poured over top, take a sheet of waxed or parchment paper as close to the size of your pan as possible and lay it directly on top of the strata. Using your hands or another pan that has a bottom that sits evenly on the paper, press down gently and slowly on the mixture. This will help the bread absorb the liquid more thoroughly and rapidly, so that you don't have dry portions after it's finished baking. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the shredded cheese over the top and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the egg/custard mixture is fully set and a sharp knife inserted into the center comes out clean and hot to the touch.
14b. If you are making this the day (or night) before serving, do not sprinkle the additional 1/3 of the cheese on the top. Just cover the pan tightly with cling wrap and place it in the fridge overnight. It also wouldn't be a bad idea to put a sheet or two of aluminum foil over the top of the plastic wrap, so that the strata doesn't get dried out. The next morning, remove it from the fridge about 15 minutes before baking to allow it to come up to room temperature. Then uncover it and sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the cheese over the top. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the egg/custard mixture is set and a sharp knife inserted into the center comes out clean and hot to the touch.
(And Happy Easter!)
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