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The first time I tasted strata was at a friend's brunch party. As the guests arrived, the host seemed to have everything perfectly under control, with nary a bead of sweat on her forehead. After we sat down, she effortlessly pulled a big bubbling pan out of the oven and set it on the table, the scent of mushroom and browned cheese wafting through the air. What was this, and did she wake up at 5 a.m. to make it?
It was strata, a savory bread pudding. And since strata can be assembled hours ahead of baking, it's one of the ultimate make-ahead meals.
Most strata recipes have brunch in mind because of the convenient overnight soak, but this delicious bake is just as appropriate for dinner. And while you can let the strata sit overnight (or the whole day if you prep it in the morning) before it goes into the oven, it can also be made start-to-finish in about an hour, just like any other bread pudding.
For the bread, plain white sliced bread becomes way too mushy—make sure to use a chewy, crusty bread such as a baguette. As far as fresh versus stale goes, this'll work great if you have stale bread, but fresh bread will work just fine, so long as it's hearty enough. (I rarely think far enough ahead to remember to buy bread days in advance.)
What to put in the strata? Any savory combo of cooked veggies will work (strata is a great way to use up leftovers), and a few handfuls of grated cheese make the custard taste great. For this recipe, I chose aromatic shiitake mushrooms, buttery leek, sharp cheddar cheese, and Parmesan. Ground chicken and a dash of white wine make it hearty enough to serve for dinner.
For the custard base, it took a few tries to get the texture right. Just like in a dessert bread pudding, I wanted the texture to be set but still creamy. Sugar seems to make this happen in a sweet bread pudding, but with just milk and eggs as the base in a strata, I was at a loss for the perfect consistency. I kept ending up with a curdled custard, one that didn't set, or one that was too light and lean. Half and half and some extra egg yolks ultimately provided the richness and substance that I was looking for. To protect the custard from curdling too easily and to help it thicken up, I also whisked in a small amount of cornstarch.
Bake the strata until it's just set but still jiggly and you'll be rewarded with a texture that's soft and supple. All of the flavors here are perfect for an evening meal, and reheated leftovers make for a not too shabby breakfast.