Strata is basically a baked bread custard. It makes the perfect brunch because it can be made ahead, it is easy to put together, it tastes delicious, and it looks elegant in the baking dish. Think baked French toast and you know the principle behind what makes strata so good.
I’m a baker. I bake bread, sometimes with colored eggs in the loaves for Easter. So, I reasoned, why not do that for an Easter Brunch of Strata? I can arrange the top layer of bread to resemble a nest and – with a bit of luck – have a browned and fragrant, edible Easter Basket bursting with colorful eggs to serve after church on Sunday.
Strata (8-10 servings)
1 lb Jimmy Dean Sausage (OR – make your own – add ½ tsp each powdered sage, thyme and salt, and ¼ tsp each powdered ginger, nutmeg and black pepper, to a pound of any kind of ground meat)
loaf Challah bread
½ lb sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cups of half & half
1 TBL Boiled Cider*
1 tsp salt
½ tsp powered mustard
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
pepper to taste
Start with a loaf of day old braided Challa bread (or any textured bread will do) sliced ½ inch thick, crust left on. Put one layer of slices in a buttered casserole dish big enough to hold the bread. Use end pieces to fill in the spaces. Brown the sausage in a medium fry pan. Drain grease and layer half the sausage on the bread, with half the cheese on top. Make another layer of bread slices, this one with the top ½ inch of the curved, braided crust cut off and set aside. These will make your nest. Layer the rest of the sausage and cheese on the bread and fit the remaining slices around the side of the baking dish, leaving the center clear.
Whisk the eggs with the half & half. Whisk in cider, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour about half into the baking dish to see where it comes to. It should be about half full. If lower, whisk in extra half & half, or milk, and pour remainder into the bread so that the baking dish is filled with liquid. Don’t worry, the bread will absorb it. Arrange the crust pieces in a circle to look like a nest in the center of the dish. Refrigerate for at least an hour, or as long as overnight. Ideally, this would be made the night before and sit in the refrigerator until ½ hour before baking.
Take the strata out of the refrigerator and nestle the colored eggs into the “nest”. Let it come to room temperature as you preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 45 – 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let it rest for 10 minutes while you heat plates and set the table. If you like sweet tastes, serve with maple syrup. Definitely open your favorite champagne for a beverage. This is a Holiday Brunch, afterall.
A NOTE ABOUT THIS RECIPE: at the last minute, my reserved loaf of day-old Challah bread was sold to someone else. I had no choice but to use a fresh soft white bread, which resulted in a too soggy and gooey mess to suit me, even after some extra baking! If you find yourself in a similar fix, toast the bread on low in the oven to dry it out. (Better yet, make pancakes instead, and save this recipe for when you have the right ingredients!)
Also, I was unable to find naturally colored eggs, the blue and pink eggs of some species would have been ideal, so I resorted to the dye process. The area around the “nest” absorbed some of the blue dye, making an unattractive mess. If you can’t find naturally colored eggs, add the dyed eggs just before serving. Otherwise – this is a great aromatic and flavorful dish that looks festive on the table.
*ABOUT BOILED CIDER: you could reduce a good cider until it has the consistency of syrup, or purchase some from a specialty or health food store. It adds a punch, a real boost of apple flavor in tiny quantities, so a little goes a long way.