The Family Stone introduced me to strata in 2005. The trailer featured poor Sarah Jessica Parker watching her lovingly prepared contribution to Christmas breakfast, an unbaked strata, smash onto the kitchen floor of her potential mother in law. Perhaps because of lingering associations with awkwardness and bad luck, I didn't sample the make-ahead breakfast casserole until my friend Amanda served one to me last month. With its soft, custardy bread, gooey cheese, and savory filling, it was so scrumptious that only about a week went by before I decided to make one myself.
This spinach and gruyère strata closely resembles a savory bread pudding I like to make at any time of day. I don't usually assemble bread pudding in advance, but you can put this dish together the night before, making for a very easy morning. You could use fresh spinach or chard, too, of course, cleaned and wilted. With coffee and a bowl of berries, strata becomes a complete, low-fuss brunch.
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- 1/2 loaf French or Italian bread (8 ounces), cut into 1/2 inch thick slices; supermarket bread is fine
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 4 shallots or 1 small onion, minced
- 1 10-ounce package chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
- 6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) Gruyère cheese, shredded (Havarti, sharp cheddar, and Colby are also good)
- 6 large eggs
- 1 3/4 cups half-and-half
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots or onions and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the spinach, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper. Cook until the spinach is heated through, about 2 minutes.
Grease an 8-inch-square baking dish with butter. (I used an 8 x 11 inch baking dish and filled it up completely, but it had short sides--only about an inch.) Arrange half of the bread, buttered-side up, in a single layer in the dish. Scatter half of the spinach mixture and 1/2 cup of the cheese over the bread. Repeat, making another layer of bread, spinach, and cheese.
Whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper until smooth. Pour this mixture evenly over the top of the layered bread, spinach, and cheese. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and put a 2-pound bag of sugar on top to weigh it down. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Allow the strata to stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before baking. When ready to bake, remove the sugar weight, remove the plastic wrap, and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup cheese over the top. Bake until both the edges and center are puffed and the edges have pulled away slightly from the sides of the dish, 50 to 55 minutes. (The center of my strata never really puffed, so I removed it when the edges pulled away from the sides of the dish.) Cool on a wire rack 5 minutes before serving.