By Chef Judi Gallagher.
So many of us feel as though we turn the oven on in mid November and keep both the oven and ourselves running until the New Year. We maintain a feverish pace of setting, resetting, roasting, basting, stirring, frying and baking. We can stand the heat in the kitchen, but occasionally it’s wise to take a step back, cool down and consider a different kind of meal, one that honors multi-religious celebrations and doesn’t require a lot of fuss.
I’m talking about a festive December brunch where the menu calls for fresh fruit smoothies, an elegant strata, salads and outrageously delicious stuffed French toast. Passé are the passed trays of Mimosas when guests arrive and a Bloody Mary bar. What’s in now are alcohol-free cocktails, warm mugs of ginger-spiced cider or hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream and a peppermint stick. If your guests expect an alcohol based drink, try a white wine spritzer with just a splash of peach schnapps. It’s a crisp and lighter drink than the Mimosas of old and it’s more sophisticated.
I subscribe to the “plan ahead” strategy for my holiday brunch. First, I survey the freezer for Thanksgiving leftovers, including stuffing and pumpkin bread that can reappear as a completely new dish like strata. Then, I think about the different combinations I can create with some leftover bits of cheeses as well.
Strata is a bread pudding-like layered comfort food casserole made with eggs, cheese and stale cubed bread. Since comfort food is the “in” food for 2009 and 2010, brunches today that are less formal in structure and yes, the buffet table is loaded with delicious baked soul-satisfying flavors. This is no place to count calories. The word strata derives from stratum or strate and is mainly a geological term for the phenomenon of layered rocks in a terrain.
A cuisine strata is assembled ahead of time by layering ingredients in a casserole dish and chilling overnight or for 8 hours before bringing it back up to room temperature and baking. This popular one-dish brunch offering can also be made as a side dish during the holiday season (spinach and cheese for example). Serve the strata warm with wonderful leftovers such as turkey and ham. Smoked Gouda cheese and sliced Granny Smith apples pair perfectly with leftover turkey, while a sharp Swiss cheese and sweet potato rolls will make that corner chunk of leftover spiral ham into an inspirational dish.
A strata of smoked salmon or smoked trout and mild goat cheese with fresh snipped chives and chopped sun-dried tomatoes is a fine substitute for bagels and lox. Top individual servings of salmon strata with a thick slice of beefsteak tomato, sour cream, minced red onion and fresh dill. It’s colorful and delicious.
Traditionally for a holiday brunch, I also include a crisp Waldorf salad or fresh baby spinach salad with sliced mango and wedges of hard cooked eggs and red onion slices, tossed with warm apple cider and bacon vinaigrette.
On my dessert table I arrange a huge tiered platter of my classic Mascarpone-stuffed French toast with warm fruit compote. The filling can easily be made a day or two in advance and I prefer to actually stuff the French toast in between layers of thick cut Challah bread the night before. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and half your prep is already done.
Stuffed French Toast with Warm Peach-Blueberry Compote
(frozen peaches and frozen mixed berries can be used)
1 loaf Challah bread, sliced thick
1 pound cream cheese, softened
½ cup Mascarpone cheese (Italian cream cheese)
3 tablespoons-plus powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
3 eggs, beaten
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups frozen peaches and mixed berries
Unsalted butter (approximately 6 tablespoons split)
¼ cup brown sugar
Whip softened cream cheese, mascarpone and vanilla extract with powdered sugar. Spread some of the mixture between two slices of Challah Bread.
Whip eggs with milk, cinnamon and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in a large bowl.
Preheat electric fry pan or large pan to medium high. Add 1-2 tablespoons butter. Do not brown the butter.
Dip stuffed bread into batter mixture and lightly brown on both sides. Remove from pan and repeat.
Cut the stuffed French toast into quarters and arrange on a platter. Add remaining butter and melt. Add brown sugar and blend with butter. Deglaze pan with Grand Marnier and add frozen fruit.
Continue to stir until a thick compote has blended and the fruit is warm. Pour over French toast and serve immediately.
Spinach, Ham and Cheese Strata
I love this recipe because the nutty flavor of the Gruyere cheese enhances the rich and satisfying flavors of this rich layered dish. It works as a main dish or side.
1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
1 cup finely chopped onion (1 large)
2 leeks, cleaned and chopped, whites only
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb.)
6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
1 cup leftover baked ham, cut into cubes
2 3/4 cups milk
9 large eggs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop. Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice
(ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes. Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Brunch Time Spinach Salad
4 cups baby spinach, washed
1 small can mandarin oranges, drained
1 red onion, sliced into rings
1 pint grape tomatoes
½ pound applewood smoked bacon, cooked crisp, reserve 2
tablespoons bacon fat (keep hot)
6 hard cooked eggs, cooled and cut into quarters
Make dressing in blender or mixing bowl and gently toss into spinach
½ cup orange marmalade
Approximately 4 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Hot bacon fat
Garnish with 1 cup toasted pecans
Flavors and More Magazine – December 2009