I stopped when I got to a recipe for an egg strata: slices of bread layered with cheese and soaked overnight in a pesto-flavored eggs-and-milk mixture. Baked in the morning, it puffs up and browns on top, filling the house with a heady aroma. While it looked impressive coming out of the oven, when I served it, the dish was heavier and oilier than I liked. Over the years, I made it a handful of times, each time adjusting ingredients slightly for flavor, but mostly trying different techniques to lighten the texture and eliminate the spongey bites of bread that I felt took away from the dish. I finally developed a version of it that met my expectations, was a hit with family and friends, and became a Family Favorite.
I cut out all of the butter, except for lightly coating the dish. I took a different approach to the bread entirely, scrapping the two layers of bread that lined the dish. Instead, I cubed it and baked the dry cubes on a baking sheet for a few minutes before adding them to the egg-and-milk mixture, reducing the amount of bread used in the dish by half. I decreased the amount of cheese slightly; there’s still plenty of melty goodness on top and through the custard, and sometimes I have a a bite or two leftover to snack on.
The resulting dish is savory from the pesto and has a crunchy, cheesy crust that contrasts nicely with the soft, eggy custard underneath. The end result: it’s more of a savory, bread pudding than a traditional strata, and it’s very satisfying.
If we’re having friends over for brunch, this often is my go-to main dish. I serve it with a bright fruit salad, and a coffeecake or muffins to complete the spread. While this recipe doesn’t contain meat, you can easily add cubed ham between the layers of bread cubes — when I do this, I call it Green Eggs and Ham and Cheese. Or, you might like a saute of your favorite kind of mushrooms and shallots for a veggie twist — this option produces a tasty and pretty dish. I use a light hand on the Tabasco — just 1/4 teaspoon — but you could crank up the fiery factor if you like a good kick in the morning. Last thing: despite the name, don’t just think about this savory bread pudding for breakfast. It makes a terrific meatless meal during the week paired with a green salad dressed with a garlicky vinaigrette.
- Butter to lightly grease an 8" x 8" square or 10" x 6" rectangular pan or ceramic dish
- Bread -- 4 1-inch slices of day-old bread (can be sourdough or french -- not a baguette) cut into cubes.
- 6-oz piece of your favorite aged Cheddar; grated (you may have a little cheese left over to nosh on)
- 5 eggs, beaten
- ¼ tsp Tabasco sauce
- 2¼ cups whole milk
- 1½ Tbsp prepared pesto sauce (store-bought for this recipe is fine; try to leave as much oil in the container as possible; too much makes the dish oily)
- ½ tsp salt
- ⅛ tsp pepper
- Toast the cubes in a 300-degree oven for about five minutes. You want them to be crisp but not little rocks. Let them sit for five minutes to cool off before you use them.
- Sprinkle half of the toasted bread cubes on the bottom of the buttered casserole dish. Use a light touch with the bread cubes; don't crowd them too much.
- Sprinkle half the cheese on top of the bread cubes.
- Put the remaining bread cubes on top of the cheese.
- Whisk the eggs, and then add the milk, Tabasco, pesto, salt and pepper; lightly whisk again to mix in the pesto and spices.
- Pour the egg-and-milk mixture over the top of the bread mixture. Press the cubes down gently so that they are moistened by the liquid.
- Cover the casserole dish with plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator overnight. If you're making this for dinner, you can prepare in the morning and let it sit in the fridge until you bake it (eight hours is plenty).
- Before baking, take the dish out of the fridge and let it warm up a bit -- I usually take it out 30-45 minutes before I bake it.
- When you're ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Take the remaining cheese and sprinkle it over the top of the eggs. I generally put the casserole dish on a cookie sheet while it cooks, in case of spills. Bake it in the top third of the oven.
- Because ovens vary, start checking the strata at 35 or 40 minutes. I generally bake this dish for nearly an hour. It's best when it's uniformly brown and a butter knife put in the center of the dish comes out clean. It should be puffy and lovely.