Every Christmas morning, for as long as I can remember, while the family is opening gifts, I've had a ham and cheddar strata baking away in the oven. The aroma fills the house with the promise of all the cheesy deliciousness that's about to be served.
Strata, a casserole made with bread, eggs, milk and cheese, is the perfect breakfast or brunch solution when you want to serve something special, but have zero time to devote to the effort. It can be assembled the night before and baked off the next day. And it's the perfect vehicle for other tasty ingredients, like bacon, ham or sausage, and maybe some sautéed or roasted vegetables, which allows the cook the freedom to make the dish their own.
It's an ultra-easy crowd pleaser of dish, and yet, for no good reason, I've relegated it to a single meal on just one day of the year. It's a mistake I don't intend to keep making.
Strata can be a go-to meal anytime, on any day. It's made with ingredients you likely already have on hand, and while it can certainly be made ahead of time, it doesn't have to be. This week's Italian Sausage, Pepper and Parmesan Skillet Strata, for example, can be made in less than an hour.
For this recipe, I'm completely changing up my strata game by using Italian sausage, sautéed bell peppers, garlic, spinach and a generous amount of Parmesan cheese to deliver big flavor.
Lightly toasted cubes of bread are added to the skillet (feel free to skip the toasting if you're using day-old bread) just in time to soak up a rich custard that's poured over the top. This strata gets a running start on top of the stove, where it cooks just long enough to set on the bottom, before it gets popped in the oven to finish cooking and develop a brown, crispy top.
Could you assemble it in a baking dish the night before? Absolutely. Just arrange the bread and other sautéed ingredients in the dish, pour the custard over the top and keep covered, in the fridge, until you're ready to bake it.
Of course, this Italian version of a classic strata would be delicious for brunch on Christmas morning or any other morning, but I served it for dinner with a crispy green salad and a glass of wine.
Italian Sausage, Pepper and Parmesan Skillet Strata
Serves 6 to 8.
Strata, an egg, cheese and bread casserole, is often thought of as a breakfast or brunch dish. But this version, made with Italian sausage, sweet peppers and cheese, would be just as welcome at the dinner table. From Meredith Deeds.
• 6 c. cubed (1 1/2-in. pieces) hearty country-style bread (about 12 oz.)
• 8 large eggs
• 1 1/2 c. whole milk
• 1/2 c. half-and-half
• Salt and pepper
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 12 oz. bulk Italian sausage
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 2 small bell peppers (red, yellow, orange or a combination), chopped, for about 1 1/2 c.
• 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 3 c. baby spinach
• 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
Place oven rack in upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Toast bread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet until it begins to dry out but not yet browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside.
Whisk eggs, milk, half-and-half, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in bowl until well combined, about 30 seconds; set aside.
Heat oil in 12-inch cast-iron or oven-safe nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add sausage and cook, breaking it up with the back of a spoon, until no pink remains. Add onion, bell pepper and garlic and cook, stirring, for another 4 to 5 minutes, until vegetables are softened. Add spinach and cook, stirring, for another 1 to 2 minutes, just until the spinach is wilted. Add bread and 1/2 cup Parmesan and stir to evenly distribute the ingredients. Pour egg mixture over the top. Press down on strata with a spatula to help bread absorb egg mixture. Cook, without stirring, until the bottom is beginning to set and the custard is bubbling slightly, about 5 minutes.
Transfer skillet to oven and bake until the surface of the strata is slightly puffy and nicely browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove skillet from oven and let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.