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A breakfast fit for mom
A few tweaks, including a skillet, put new life into an old brunch favorite: strata
Eggs make delicious, no-hassle entrees for breakfast or brunch menus. So for Mother's Day this year — on Sunday — who deserves a yummy, easy breakfast more than Mom? Whether you make it for her or she makes it for herself, a strata is guaranteed to be a hit.
For years, I've been tinkering with one strata recipe after the next, cooking up different versions of the ubiquitous egg-based casserole.
Initially, the dish layered whole pieces of day-old, crust-free bread with eggs, cheese and milk. Stowed in the fridge overnight, the bread absorbed the milk and eggs. Once baked, it took on a cheesy, custard-like texture.
But they could be rubbery, especially if they overcooked or sat for a while.
And I noticed that sometimes they were too bready. So I started using less bread and cutting it into 1-inch pieces. I tossed the bread pieces with the egg-milk-cheese mixture, rather than layering. That made me happy, especially when I figured out that I could use goat cheese.
But after preparing the strata-in-a-skillet devised by the perfectionists at America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated magazine, I don't think I can go back to my old ways. The texture of the skillet strata is denser than a soufflé but lighter than a traditional strata, with a custardy bread pudding vibe. The flavor is supurb, with pepper Jack cheese offering a little bit of spicy heat and bacon pitching in with its signature smoky fat-meat luxury.
The downside is that some of the work, not much, has to be done right before it goes into the oven. All the ingredients can be prepped in advance, and the bacon and onions can be cooked in an ovenproof skillet an hour or so before the completion process starts.
Thirty minutes before serving, heat the skillet and add the bread to the onion mixture. You might need to add a little canola oil or olive oil around the edge of the skillet for proper bread toasting, especially if the bacon is lean. Once the bread is tossed and toasted, take it off the heat and add the egg-milk-cheese mixture. Then it requires 12 minutes in the oven. Voilà.
To round out the menu, I include a colorful fruit salad, a wedge-veg salad garnished with asparagus. And of course a dessert with a little glam — a coconut cake adorned with fresh berries. I make it from scratch, but if you are running short on time, use a packaged yellow cake mix to create two 9-inch rounds.
The first time I made skillet strata, I was concerned that my 10-inch ovenproof non-stick skillet wouldn't have enough volume because it has sloped sides. But it turned out to be just the ticket.
BACON AND PEPPER JACK SKILLET STRATA
Yield: six servings, or eight small servings
6 large eggs
1-1⁄2 cups whole milk
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 ounces pepper Jack cheese, shredded (1 cup)
4 ounces bacon, about 4 to 5 slices, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
5 slices high-quality, crust-on white sandwich bread, cut into 1-inch squares, see cook's notes
Garnish: 2 green onions, trimmed, thinly sliced including dark green stalks
Cook's notes: For best results, use either Pepperidge Farms Farmhouse Hearty White or Oroweat Country White Bread.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Whisk eggs, milk and pepper in a medium bowl. Stir in cheese and set aside.
In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat, cook bacon until it starts to render fat, about two minutes (if bacon is super lean, add 1 teaspoon of olive oil or canola oil to the skillet). Add onion and salt; cook until onion softens and browns lightly, about six minutes.
Add bread and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold bread into onion mixture until evenly coated. Cook bread, folding occasionally, until lightly toasted, about three minutes.
Remove from heat and fold in the egg mixture until slightly thickened and well combined with the bread. Gently press on the top of the strata to help it soak up the egg mixture. Transfer the skillet to the preheated oven and bake until the edges and center are puffed and the edges have pulled away slightly from the sides of the pan, about 12 minutes. Let rest for five minutes before serving. Top with green onion slices and serve.
Source: "The Best Skillet Recipes" from the Editors of Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, $35)
CATHY'S WEDGE-VEG SALAD WITH BLUE CHEESE DRESSING, CHERRY TOMATOES, ASPARAGUS AND CHIVES
Yield: eight servings
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Salt and ground white pepper, to taste
1⁄2 teaspoon dry mustard
1⁄2 cup crumbled blue cheese, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
1⁄2 cup buttermilk
1⁄4 cup mayonnaise
1⁄2 cup canola oil
2 medium heads iceberg lettuce, washed, drained, each cut into 4 or 6 lengthwise quarters
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed, cooked tender-crisp, cold or at room temperature
2 to 3 tablespoon thinly sliced chives
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
For dressing: In medium bowl, combine vinegar, salt, pepper and dry mustard; stir until well combined and salt dissolves. Add remaining ingredients (reserving 2 tablespoons cheese for garnish) and stir to combine. Refrigerate well-sealed. If too thick, add enough cold water to reach desired consistency. You will need 1 cup of dressing for this recipe.
Place lettuce wedges side by side on a rimmed platter. Place asparagus next to lettuce. Scatter cherry tomato halves around and on top of lettuce. Stir dressing and spoon dressing on top of lettuce, covering the middle area of the wedges. Garnish with reserved cheese, chives and pepper. Serve.
• • •
For years this classic coconut cake from the "Silver Palate Cookbook" has been one of my favorites. In the cookbook, the authors advise that the oh-so-chunky frosting be used between the layers and on top, leaving the sides "naked." I like to use a generous amount as a filling and just enough on top to cover it; then I cover the sides of the cake as well. I use a large spoon to put some in place on the side, then smooth it out with a frosting spatula. I repeat this all the way around the cake, making a thin layer to cover the side. I garnish it with fresh berries and pesticide-free roses from my yard.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
Butter for greasing pans
2-1⁄2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for dusting pans
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup dry white wine
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
2-1⁄4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 cups (sweetened) shredded coconut, about 14 ounces
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round layer cake pans.
Beat sugar and eggs together in large bowl of electric mixer. Mix at medium speed for 30 seconds. Add oil, wine, flour, salt, baking powder and vanilla; beat for one minute, scraping down sides halfway through mixing time.
Pour batter into prepared pans. Set on center rack of preheated oven and bake until cake has pulled away from sides of pan and a knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
Let cakes cool in pans for five minutes. Turn them out on a rack and let cool for at least two hours before frosting.
Prepare frosting: Mix sour cream, vanilla and coconut in mixing bowl. Blend well. Add sugar and mix thoroughly. Place one cake layer on cake platter or plate and spread the top with half of the coconut mixture. Place second layer on top of the first and spread with the remaining coconut mixture, leaving sides of the cake unfrosted (see introduction). Garnish with fresh berries and flowers.
Source: "Silver Palate Cookbook" (Workman, $ 19.95)