Casseroles are a funny thing. You aren't likely to see them lauded as the hot new food trend any time soon. Yet make a great one, and suddenly folks clamor for the recipe.
My favorite casserole is one that typically is served for breakfast or brunch. It's called an egg strata, and I love it because it's easy to prep ahead of time, and bakes up light and fluffy, and yet is substantial and satisfying — a perfect choice for a romantic breakfast in bed come Valentine's Day.
The other thing that I love about a strata is that you can tailor it to include your favorite flavors, as well as make it sweet or savory. Strata is the plural of stratum, which literally means layers, and you can layer all your favorite ingredients in with the bread and egg custard.
I grew up with the classic cheddar cheese, breakfast sausage egg strata. When I moved to Chicago, I began to experiment with different fillings. I fell in love with this city's Greek omelet, which is a signature of its ubiquitous diners. I adapted those flavors to create a spinach, feta, onion and tomato strata. Another favorite is wild mushrooms, leeks and brie cheese.
When I am cooking brunch for a lot of people, I like to make two strata — one sweet, another savory. An apple-cream cheese stuffed "French toast" strata is my favorite sweet version, but you could add any kind of fruit. If you make a sweet strata for Valentine's Day, try stuffing it with strawberries and chocolate for a new twist on everyone's beloved chocolate-covered strawberries. Just leave out the savory spices and add a touch of sugar and lemon zest to make the stuffed French toast of your dreams.
There are simpler strata recipes available, but I still love the original I grew up with. It uses more eggs and a mixture of milk and half-and-half for a richer, more quiche-like custard. I don't use as much bread as many recipes because I like it to literally melt into the other ingredients. This produces a lighter, puffier strata. I do add a bit more bread to my sweet French toast version because I want a breadier result for that version.
Letting the strata rest before baking allows the bread to become saturated by the egg mixture, as well as the other flavors. I like to let it rest overnight. Not only does this produce the creamiest result, it also saves me any trouble in the morning. I just uncover it and pop it in the oven. But if you prefer to make it the day of, plan to let it rest for at least an hour in the refrigerator.
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