I’ve had a long-time propensity towards working in coffee shops. Ever since my crash course in coffee drinking many summers ago in Norway. (I went from drinking cream and sugar with a splash of coffee to drinking plain coffee, black, in the span of about 3 days, thanks to the merciless teasing of my dear uncle. Except for the occasional cappuccino, I’ve never looked back.)
I sit, along with the many other denizens of Laptopistan, titrating my caffeine while hammering through work. Were it 300 years ago, we’d be inventing the stock exchange in London or fomenting revolution in France. Instead, what are we doing exactly? Blogging, I suppose! And dissertating, and consulting, and designing websites, and such and so.
In college, I was never able to study in the library. It always put me to sleep. So, instead I went and studied in the coffee shops. There were two options then, in the sleepy little agricultural town where I went to school. Not a Starbucks or Caribou Coffee in site.
One coffee shop skewed toward the granola, with fair trade coffee, decent organic baked goods, grating music, and dirty old couches. The other had unabashedly Midwestern coffee (i.e. on the weak side), but I loved to go there because it was decorated like a family kitchen. It was the kind of space where I felt comfortable staying for hours.
Like the coffee, the food belonged in a church basement. But, the names always made me laugh.
I think of Southern food, for example, and every dish name sounds like it has a long story behind it, about “that one time when…” Hoppin John, Chicken Bog, Potlikker. They’re so evocative.
Midwestern fare, on the other hand, is just called what it is. Hot dish, egg bake, spaghetti pie, jello salad (oh wait, that one’s a little misleading. No salad to be seen in there.). It’s on par with the Italians for frankness in naming (maltagliatti, anyone?), though it doesn’t roll of the tongue with the same alacrity.
Egg bake is my favorite. Egg bake! When you could call something a strata, a savory bread pudding, a crustless quiche…But no, they were happy with egg bake.
I, however, froofi-fy my egg dishes, and therefore I’m calling this a strata. Well, a strata if served at breakfast, a savory bread pudding if served at supper. And, it can certainly be served at either, with a little slice for lunch in between.
It’s easy to think of some dishes – salads, pizzas, toasts – as dumping grounds for all the assorted ingredients you have accumulated in your fridge. I know I do. All the time. But, today I’m going to go ahead and suggest that you consider curating your choices for something like a strata.
A little thought goes a long way. (Though, if today is not one of your thinking days, you can go ahead and skip it.)
What I am trying to say, in a most spectacularly circuitous fashion, is that a kitchen sink approach of throwing in ingredients willy-nilly can give you a strata that is heavy, and eating it can make your taste buds feel like a swarming bees nest with too little direction. But a restrained hand, a few well chosen accents that complement the eggy bread pieces, can elevate the strata to food that feels adequate to rubbing elbows with at least the likes of caviar, and wouldn’t feel tongue-tied in the presence of champagne.
That’s why it’s a strata (or savory bread pudding)! Not egg bake.
This particular strata I laced with some of my favorite seasonal ingredients. Tender morsels of sweet potato and earthy sautéed fall mushrooms hide amidst rich custard and softened cubes of bread. A confetti of bacon is also scattered throughout, providing nice smoky, porky bites.
An important secret (I learned it from Cook’s Illustrated) is the splash of white wine cooked in with the mushrooms and shallots. Though the alcohol cooks off, the flavors of the white wine linger and infuse the strata with complexity and brightness that keeps it from feeling too dense. I recommend always putting some sautéed shallots, with a splash of wine towards the end, into your stratas.
The little bit of waiting time is also worth your while. Like in a dessert bread pudding, you want the bread cubes to become good and soaked with the egg and cream mixture so that they will bake into a wobbly, silky custard. But, use stale or toasted bread so that it keeps some of its structure. Nursery school style mush isn’t sophisticated. (Usually. There are some exceptions to this rule, but we’re not going to explore those right now.)
Once assembled, you can let the strata hang out until whenever you’re ready for it (provided you’re not hoping to bake it next year, or anything), an obliging characteristic that you might not expect from something as sophisticated as strata. But, a characteristic that is extremely useful on busy days, holidays, days when you’re going to have guests for brunch and don’t want to get up at 6 to assemble your dishes, and the like.
And sure, maybe I’m pushing my luck with trying to sell strata as such a gourmet dish. In its heart, it may be that it really is egg bake. But, with a cup of coffee in the morning, or a glass of wine and a salad in the evening, I don’t think anyone is going to complain.
Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Mushrooms, and Bacon (Serves 8 )
- 6 cups of day-old bread, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 medium sweet potato, washed and cut into ½ inch pieces
- 1 Tbs. olive oil
- 5 oz. of bacon, cut into lardons (i.e. small pieces)
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 4 cups sliced mushrooms (any variety you prefer, or a mix)
- 1 1/2 Tbs. butter
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 9 eggs
- 1 ½ cups milk
- 1 ¼ cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp. salt, ½ tsp. ground black pepper
- Heat your oven to 425F. Toss the pieces of sweet potato with the olive oil, sprinkle with salt, spread in a roasting pan and roast in the oven until tender, about 15-20 min.
- In the meanwhile, heat a large frying pan to medium. Add the lardons and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are crispy. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer them to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. Set aside.
- Pour off the bacon grease, then wipe the pan clean. Put the pan back on the stove, turn the heat to medium-high and add the 1 ½ Tbs. butter. Wait until the butter has melted and is foaming, then stir in the shallot. Cook for 2-3 minutes until softened. Next, stir in the mushrooms and sprinkle with some salt (and a tsp. of chopped thyme or sage if you wish). Cook until the mushrooms have given off their liquid and it has evaporated (7-10 minutes). Then, stir in the white wine and simmer until the wine has mostly cooked off. Turn off the heat and set the pan aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, cream, 1 tsp. and ½ tsp. pepper.
- In a large baking dish or gratin pan, mix together the bread cubes, cooked sweet potato, mushroom mixture, and bacon pieces. Gently pour the egg mixture evenly all over this. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and either let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, or put it into the refrigerator for up to 24 hours, until you’re ready to cook and serve it.
- Before baking, preheat your oven to 325F. If the bread pudding is in the fridge, take it out and let it sit at room temperature for 15 or 20 minutes. Uncover it and put it in the oven. Bake it for 50-60 minutes or so, until it is set but jiggles ever so slightly in the center if you shake the pan. Take it out of the oven and set on a cooling rack to cool for 10-15 minutes before you cut into it.
- Serve for breakfast or brunch or for supper, accompanied by a green salad.