MoM Dec. ’08 Cook’s Illustrated: Breakfast Strata with Sausage, Mushrooms and Monterey Jack

This weekend, I took a break out of my Christmas Cookie baking whirlwind to try out one of the breakfast stratas in AwK’s December 2008 magazine of the month, Cook’s Illustrated Holiday Baking.

But first, what is a breakfast strata? The test kitchen writes:

What’s quicker than quiche, sturdier than souffle, and combines the best qualities of both? The answer is strata, a layered casserole that in its most basic form comprises bread, eggs, cheese, and milk or cream. Layered among them are flavorful fillings that provide both substance and character, and the result is, in essence, a golden brown, puffed, hearty, savory bread pudding.

Yes, please!

The article goes on to explain how the test kitchen sampled a variety of different kinds of strata and experimented with a variety of ingredients and methods of cooking. In the end, they produced three versions of perfect strata. I selected Sausage, Mushrooms and Monterey Jack Cheese.

Strata has to be made ahead given time to chill. Making it the night before is best.

Rather than let bread sit out overnight, I let mine sit in a warm oven for a little bit. While that was sitting, I sauteed up the sausage, mushrooms and shallots.

I actually like that this dish has to rest in the refrigerator, because it’s perfect for a holiday morning when everyone gets up early and wanders around in pajamas and bathrobes. It sides up nicely with a cup of coffee and bed hair, so make it the night before and, when you get up the next morning, pop it into the oven for the set time. A hot, fancy breakfast will then be available for everyone.

The article explains that part of their experimenting was done with onions and garlic, but they found that shallots were better in this case. This version of the strata calls for three shallots, diced and sauteed with the mushrooms and sausage.

Then your bread comes out of the oven, is buttered and placed in your baking pan.

The singled recipe makes enough to go into a 9x9x2 pan. Revised times for doubled recipes are also listed, so again, no guesswork when you’re working with the Test Kitchen.

From here on out, it’s just layering and trying not to eat the rest of the bread. I had great success with the former, and not much with the latter. When I placed the second layer of bread down, I realized I had eaten one piece too many and had to quickly toast up another slice. In the earlier bread picture, you can even see how I tore off a corner of that center slice and ate it.

Come on, it’s fresh Italian bread with butter slathered on top — can you blame me?

The second layer is assembled in the same order: bread, sausage mixture, cheese.

Then comes the fun part. A 1/2 cup of dry, white wine goes into the frying pan that you just had your sausage mixture in, and it simmers until reduced to half. It is whisked into eggs, cream, salt and pepper, then poured into the baking pan, over the assembled layers.

Before this goes into the oven, they recommend that the strata is weighted down. I was unable to do this because I only had foil and not plastic wrap, but they give another one of their nifty illustrations on how to do so. The article also goes into the whys, but I won’t go into it since it’s repetitive for those who have the magazine.

When it’s done sitting, it’s thrown in the oven for about 40 minutes. It will puff up and brown on the top and edges.

The end result is a light and fluffy egg breakfast, filled with savory ingredients. I worried that the bread might make the mixture too much like a bad, soggy bread pudding – I’ve been served a few of these and I’ve sworn them off for good. The texture really throws me off. The strata isn’t anything like that, and the bread gives the mixture some structure.

I cut my strata into quarters and served, piping hot.

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