Breakfast casseroles free up cooks to entertain

Omelet-soufflé, touted in this blog’s previous post, is a favorite breakfast dishes that graced the weekend breakfast table when I was growing up. Because my mom worked in a breakfast restaurant, my family didn’t go out for that meal very often. Yet she was only too ready to play the role of short-order cook of big breakfasts at home, despite the big mess they leave behind in the kitchen.

I’m more of the make-ahead ilk, both to save time cooking and cleaning up in the morning. That’s exactly what I did when it was my turn to entertain my mom, dad and sister for Christmas. The morning meal was very simply a savory bread pudding, also known as strata, basically a breakfast casserole.

In a bid to cycle through items I’d had for a few months in the freezer, I used bread that I had diced up and frozen just for this eventuality, plus frozen, diced winter squash and diced jalapeno-seasoned bacon. Combined with some sautéed onion and collard greens, immersed in egg beaten with milk and topped with cheese, the dish represented a departure from our family’s usual brunch but freed me up to enjoy the holiday spirit — and focus on dinner.

I didn’t use a recipe for the casserole, generally speaking, a free-form concept. But some ratios can be helpful when faced with a pile of ingredients. This is how recipe testers for the Detroit Free Press describe the process.

Bread: Use plain sandwich bread, sweet challah, leftover rolls, croutons or anything you have on hand. Cut bread into cubes or leave in slices. Figure a good 6 cups of bread cubes if you’re using a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Make sure the bread is several days old and dry. If necessary, dry it in a 300-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Cheese and add-ins: Use shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, fontina or fontinella. Cheese blends such as Italian or Mexican also work well, or you can use some Parmesan or Gruyere. The amount of cheese you include, according to epicurious.com, is about half the amount of bread you used. If you used 4 cups of bread cubes, use 2 cups of cheese. Add-ins include cooked sausage and bacon, sautéed ham and vegetables like peppers, onions, spinach and kale.

Eggs and milk: Epicurious.com recommends using equal parts eggs and milk. These, along with the bread, help bind the casserole together. The combination of eggs and milk should equal or come close to the amount of bread you use. If you use 4 cups of cubed bread, use 2 cups of milk and 2 cups of egg, then add in seasonings, herbs or ingredients such as hot sauce and Dijon mustard.

Assemble: Butter a baking dish and scatter or layer the bread in the dish. Scatter cooked meat and vegetables over the bread. Sprinkle with all but about 1/2 cup of the cheese. Pour the milk-egg mixture over the bread. Press down slightly on the mixture so all the bread gets some moisture. It’s OK if some bread is exposed at the top. Sprinkle with reserved cheese. Cover with foil and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.

Bake: Remove casserole from refrigerator, keep covered with foil and bake in a preheated 350- to 375-degree oven about 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and continue baking until casserole is puffed and lightly brown and the center is set and doesn’t jiggle. Or bake according to the recipe. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.

This recipe makes good use of leftover holiday ham, suiting it to Easter. And for spreads that feature mini croissants, this would be a fine way to recast the leftovers.

Tribune News Service photo

Overnight Croissant Breakfast Casserole

12 to 15 day-old mini croissants

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

8 ounces diced ham

1 1/2 pounds sweet onions or other onions, peeled and chopped or sliced into 1-inch long pieces (about 4 cups)

5 ounces baby spinach, roughly chopped

6 large eggs

2 cups whole milk

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

6 to 8 ounces fontina cheese, shredded (about 2 cups), divided

Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange the croissants, slightly overlapping, in dish into 2 rows.

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the ham and saute until lightly browned. Using a slotted spoon, transfer ham to a large bowl. (If using country ham, reserve drippings in skillet.) Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to skillet; stir in the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until deeply browned, for about 20 to 30 minutes. Add the spinach; cook, stirring often, until wilted, for 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer onion/spinach mixture to bowl with ham; let cool for 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, mustard, salt and pepper. Add egg mixture and 1 1/2 cups cup of the cheese to bowl with onion mixture and stir to combine. Pour mixture over croissants. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and chill for 8 hours or up to overnight.

When you’re ready to serve, preheat oven to 375 F. Uncover casserole and place on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven until golden-brown and center is set, for about 50 minutes to 1 hour. Cover with foil after 25 minutes, if necessary, to prevent excess browning.

Makes 10 servings.

Recipe adapted by the Detroit Free Press from Southern Living Magazine’s December 2018 issue.

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