Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year's Brunch: Spinach and Cheese Strata

Cheese Strata ready to bake. 

When visitors come calling, I can get frenetic if I haven't prepared ahead of time. A bit like a jack-in-the-box, I'm up, I'm down, then up again--to the stove, the refrigerator, the table, the sink, chopping up the last-minute salad, throwing together a cheese plate, rounding up the drinks and a vegetarian dish for a non-meat eater. Of course, I flash back to my mother, who never seemed to sit for any length of time, so intent was she on the last-minute prep that went into the evening meal, whether it was for the family or for a house full of relatives or guests.

The other day, a small group of women gathered at my house for our monthly writing group. To reduce the work for the host, the guests often bring a small lunch, while the host prepares a side dish or two. My guests were arriving at 10 a.m., so I thought a small breakfast/brunch was in order, but I didn't feel like worrying over a pan of scrambled eggs--they're not my forte anyway. I thought an eggy casserole might be in order, so I turned to another of my trusty cookbooks, Ruth Reichl's The Gourmet Cookbook--a big yellow tome of a book brimming with practical and delicious recipes. Under breakfast, I found one that struck my fancy: "Spinach and Cheese Strata": bread cubes, spinach, butter, cheese and eggs--fairly simply, something that could be prepared the night before and then baked and served the morning of. What could be easier? it worked out pretty much as planned--and went over very well. Here's the recipe.

Spinach and Cheese Strata

8 to 10 servings

(Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)


1 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, finely chopped (1 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg*
1/2 to 1 lb. French or Italian bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
(about 8 to 10 cups)
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyere cheese (about 6 ounces)
1 cup finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese**
2 3/4 cups whole milk
9 large eggs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

*The recipe calls for freshly grated nutmeg, but I used a commercial variety, and the results were just fine.

**The recipe calls for Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I used a less expensive variety of Parmesan. Again, I think the casserole didn't suffer.


1. After defrosting spinach, squeeze out as much liquid as possible. I put the spinach in a colander and pressed with a spoon to accomplish this.

2. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add the chopped onion and cook until softened, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and the nutmeg, cooking and stirring for another minute. Stir in the spinach and then remove from the heat.

3. Butter a shallow 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow casserole dish. (I used a 14-inch oval ceramic dish that was a wedding present from an English aunt many years ago.)

4.  Chop a loaf of Italian or French bread into cubes, starting with half the loaf, then cubing more as needed.  (I prefer the large loaves to the skinny, baguettes, which have too much crust and too little doughy interior.) Spread one-third of the bread cubes in the bottom of the casserole dish. Top with one-third of the spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one-third each of the cheeses. Then repeat two more times, topping with the final layer of cheese. (Because of the size of my dish, I found that I used virtually an entire loaf of bread and didn't quite have enough of the spinach mixture, so next time I make the dish I may increase the amount of spinach, butter and onion by a third.)

5. In a large bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, mustard and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. You can also add other spices if you like, such as paprika, perhaps a sprinkling of chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and parsley.

6. Carefully pour the egg mixture over the casserole, making sure to distribute the liquid evenly. (I used a small ladle to do the pouring, as my ingredients were almost overflowing the dish, then added a sprinkle of paprika on top for color.)

7. Cover the casserole and refrigerate for at least 8 hours to allow the bread to absorb the liquid. (I refrigerated it overnight, which worked out perfectly for my next-day brunch.)

8. When you're ready to bake the casserole, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before popping it into a preheated 350 degree F oven.

9. Bake uncovered for 45 to 55 minutes until golden brown on top. To make sure the casserole is cooked through, cut into it to see if the bottom is firm. If it seems a bit soft and liquidy, return to the oven for a few more minutes, checking to make sure that it doesn't brown too much on top. (I made the mistake of leaving the casserole in the oven, which I had switched off, after serving several pieces to my friends. When I took it out later, meaning to serve some more, it had browned a bit too much on top. However, it was still excellent and soft inside, easily re-heated in the oven or microwave for several days thereafter--and actually better two days later than on the day I served it!)


1. Adding mushrooms or substituting cooked fresh spinach or kale for the frozen spinach might be an excellent variation. Again, I would make sure to remove as much liquid as possible from the vegetables before adding them to the casserole.

2. Amping up the heat with some chopped spicy chilies, using milder red peppers, or a combination, plus switching from Gruyere to a medium sharp cheddar might be another interesting variation. In this case, I might add a dash of spicy tomato salsa or Sriracha to heighten the flavor.

3. It's possible to lighten the casserole by using low-fat milk, reduced-fat cheeses and even an egg substitute or egg whites for some of the eggs. However, the resulting casserole won't be as satisfying and flavorful. My theory of weight control--and, believe me, it has been and continues to be a major challenge in my life--is that it's better to eat what you want, just less of it. Otherwise, you feel so deprived that in a weak or stressful moment, you embark on a binge--much worse than having that one piece of chocolate cake or square of spinach and cheese strata.

Happy New Year!

A bouquet of alstroemerias from a good friend
 brings sunshine into my house on a gloomy day.

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