When someone offers to bring a casserole to a party, I’ll admit to conjuring weary images of canned soup and mushy vegetables. Yet because that sort of dish is a perfectly sensible solution when feeding a crowd, instead, I invite casserole’s Italian cousin, the strata.
A close relative to bread pudding but always savory and never sweet, the layered strata is a winning option for potlucks and holiday gatherings, and it is an easy meal for your own brood, too. Brunch is often where you’ll find stratas, and I also like to serve them for brinner - that happy marriage between breakfast and dinner, so well suited to cold, way-too-busy winter nights.
I offer the accompanying recipe for a crowd, but this squash-and-kale-filled strata studded with sausage can be scaled down easily. Its ingredients may be shuffled around depending on what’s in the refrigerator. The beauty of a strata is that the key ingredients are likely to be on hand; I almost always have a few eggs, some bread, some sort of dairy and a hunk of cheese. I use this recipe as a guide, not a hard-and-fast set of rules. If I have fewer eggs, I will add a little more milk. Less milk, more eggs. Meat or no meat. A combination of vegetables or a singular flavor. Strata is easygoing.
The bread is a key player. My preference is for an enriched bread such as brioche, challah or even torn croissants, but I have even made this dish with leftover Parker House rolls, split in half. Some people like to dry out the bread on a baking sheet for a day or two, as you might for Thanksgiving stuffing, but that takes planning. Instead, I am more likely to make strata when the bread on the counter has gone a little stale all by itself. Plenty of strata recipes call for leftover baguette or sourdough bread, and while there is no reason not to use those options, I make sure to slice craggy crusted breads as thin as possible - otherwise the crust can remain firm and unyielding, even after it is soaked in the custard.
Once I’ve gathered the basic ingredients, I hunt through the vegetable drawer to find a winning mix of flavors. In spring, I might pair asparagus, lightly steamed, with fontina cheese. In summer, tomato, zucchini and yellow squash come together with ricotta. But in these cold, early-dark days, I combine kale and butternut squash. The balance of vegetal, slightly bitter greens and sweet, tender winter squash is not only delicious, it’s also pretty. Add a nutty-tasting Gruyere or Jarlsberg cheese, and the combination becomes especially rich and satisfying.
The custard, a combination of eggs, milk and cream (or half-and-half, which, after all, is half milk and half cream) works its magic, soaking into the bread during a slow refrigerated rest before baking. Classically, quiches and other custard dishes are cooked straight away, but a strata needs time for the bread and eggy liquid to get to know each other.
The required rest period means I often toss together a strata after dinner or even while making breakfast. I’ll combine leftover vegetables, shredded chicken or the last of the breakfast bacon. Whisking the eggs and shredding the cheese might add a few minutes to my morning routine, but a strata will be ready to go into the oven at the end of the day and I can spend the hour or so it’s in the oven doing something else entirely.
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Best of all, once that strata emerges from the oven, it gives you reason to feel heroic because it puffs up so dramatically. The look is sensational but fleeting, so get your people to the table to ooh and ahh, and then dig in.