Friday, September 16, 2011

Cheese Strata - Just in time for the weekend...

Everyone wants to be a star. Make this and everyone will think you are one. I promise. This dish is fabulous for many reasons; the first is that you prep it the night before your big brunch so all the work is done ahead of time. The morning of the event, pop it into the oven about an hour before your guests arrive and voila – a gourmet and beautiful dish that looks like you spent hours slaving over a hot stove and/or oven to prepare it.

When you slice into the puffy and golden strata, you see layers of melted cheese and gorgeous, crispy onions. The bread has soaked up all the eggy goodness and has become sort of like a souffle. It's light, savoury, and delicious. The wide-eyed guests at your table will marvel at the good-to-the-last-bite flavours in this dish, and you will leave them begging for more. Tell them to come back in a few weeks for the sweet version of this dish - a baked French toast that involves apples, cinnamon, brown sugar, and cream cheese (I promise to post this one soon).

This recipe was adapted from one of my favourite cookbooks (gifted to me by my sister-in-law Bryony), Cooking Jewish – 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family, by Judy Bart Kancigor. The original recipe calls for dried, minced onions (which is silly when you can use fresh, caramelized onions), and whole milk (which can easily be substituted for skim), and also calls for cutting crusts off bread (which is a waste of time in my opinion). So here is the recipe, with my adjustments.

Cheese Strata
12 slices of white bread (I use French bread, not baguette)
8 tbsp butter (1 stick or ¼ cup), melted (more on this later – I omit the butter)
10 ounces Swiss or Cheddar cheese, grated (~2 ½ cups) (Note: I use Emmenthal)
1 bunch (6 to 8) green onions, white and green parts, chopped
1 bunch flat-leafed parsley, chopped (~1/2 cup)
2 large sweet onions, sliced thin and caramelized (more on this later)
6 large eggs
1 tsp salt
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 cup sour cream (go with full or low fat, but not no fat)
3 cups milk (whatever kind you want – I use skim)

To caramelize the onions, slice them thinly and put them in a frying pan with a few tbsp of grapeseed or vegetable oil. Start the pan on high heat and then lower as soon as they start to sizzle. Cook them on low to medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes until golden brown and irresistible. The photo below shows them about 2/3 of the way cooked.

You can cut the bread in half diagonally, or you can just begin laying the bread in the 13 x 9 inch casserole dish in full pieces. I do not cut them diagonally. 

Place as many full slices in as you can and then use half pieces to fill in the gaps. The recipe calls for the melted butter to be poured into the bottom of the pan before you begin doing this. Since I use caramelized onions, instead of dried onions, the onions come with a bit of oil on them so I omit the butter. Do as you wish. You might want to spray the bottom of the dish with a cooking spray just in case.

Once you have a single layer down, spread half the grated cheese on top, then half the caramelized onions, half the green onions and half the parsley. Repeat this process with the second layer.

Whisk the eggs, salt, and mustard together in a bowl. Beat in the sour cream until smooth.

Then add the milk and stir it up. I like to add a very generous grinding of black pepper to this mix as well.

Pour the egg mixture over the layered bread, cheese, and goodness.

Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to bake the strata, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake 40 minutes until puffed and golden brown. Sometimes I do a little top broil in the oven for the last 5 minutes if it doesn’t look golden enough. Serve immediately, with a nice salad. Be prepared for a round of applause.

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