As far as I’m concerned, Smitten Kitchen’s Spinach and Cheese Strata is the ultimate in breakfast casserole perfection. Jessica told me about the recipe a few years ago and after making it once, I put it into permanent brunch rotation. It has never failed to impress and delight: it’s excellent for company because it’s unapologetically cheesy and carby and it’s excellent for the cook because it’s assembled the night before and simply baked the next morning. I love it because of the flavors (creamy, nutty, custardy) and because it tastes like more than just scrambled eggs with fillings—it’s a savory bread pudding. The only problem with the recipe is that I found myself making it too often. How many times can you serve the same guests the same thing without it becoming weird? I decided not to find out.
I started riffing on the classic to see if it was amenable to improvisation. I replaced the Gruyère with cheddar, added browned breakfast sausage, and swapped the spinach for broccoli. I kept the egg, milk, and bread proportions the same. It was different from the original—sharper and spicier—but still a total winner. I wondered, fleetingly, if the casserole was too bready, then I laughed at myself because that’s impossible. In fact, why isn’t savory bread pudding more of a thing? It’s warming, filling, and there’s no risk of sugar coma if you eat too much. I returned to this sausage, cheddar, broccoli combination when I needed a breakfast casserole for an audience that might not like parm or Gruyère. Again, success.In this latest version, I dropped the broccoli per Ed’s request and used two cheddars (one sharp and one extra sharp) and some thyme. I wasn’t even surprised when it was a hit. An overnight soak causes the bread pieces to fully absorb the milk and eggs, creating a tender, cheesy center dotted with sausage pebbles. The top layer is chewy and toasted, giving some welcome textural contrast. The two cheddars mostly blend together, but there are occasional pockets of the extra sharp that had me digging for more. Having so victoriously tinkered with the original model, I foresee a long future with this breakfast casserole, and I plan to show off a slightly different trick with each iteration. sausage and cheddar breakfast bread pudding
adapted from smitten kitchen
If you’ve never made the original from Smitten Kitchen, here’s the link.
She also made a version with corn and cheddar. I haven’t tried it, but I will this summer.
Below is but one version of the classic—as long as the custard mixture and proportions stay the same, the fillings can be as varied as one’s imagination: add two heads of briefly blanched broccoli florets; swap the sausage for cooked pancetta or bacon or ham; make it springy with Gruyère, asparagus, and mushrooms. The list goes on.
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound bulk breakfast sausage
8 cups cubed French or Italian bread in 1-inch pieces (about ½ lb)
3 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar (1 cup)
3 ounces coarsely grated extra sharp (aged 20 months or longer) cheddar (1 cup)
2 ounces finely grated parmesan (1 cup)
2 ¾ cups whole milk
9 large eggs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat; add onion and sauté until soft. Add sausage and cook, stirring to break up into smaller pieces, until meat is browned. Drain. Return pan to heat, add 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook for one minute. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Butter a 3-quart ovenproof casserole dish. Add one third of the bread cubes in an even layer in bottom of dish. Top with one-third of the sausage mixture and one-third of each cheese. Repeat layers twice with remaining bread, sausage, and cheese.
In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, mustard, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Pour evenly over layered bread, sausage, and cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 hours or up to a day.
The following day, remove casserole from refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake casserole, uncovered, on the middle rack until puffed, set, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.