Thursday, November 29, 2012

Baked Strawberry French Toast

If you ask my husband to name his favorite part of Christmas he'll tell you it's Christmas morning breakfast.  I love that his family had a tradition of making a special breakfast, and I have carried that on into our family's holidays.  However, I can't seem to juggle both a breakfast and dinner for a crowd on that day, so I've grown to love breakfast casseroles, or stratas, of all sorts.  There are both sweet and savory varieties, and because they're made the night before, it’s possible to make one of each to satisfy everyone the next day.  Doing the prep and cleanup the night before frees up my morning to start the Holiday dinner. 
By definition, a strata is "one of a series of layers, levels, or gradations in an ordered system".  The three basic ingredients in a breakfast strata are eggs, cheese, and bread.  Your dish could be as simple as that, or toss in some vegetables, meat or herbs, and make it as elaborate as you want.  The first known mention of a breakfast strata is a simple recipe for Cheese Strata printed in the 1902 edition of the Handbook of Household Science   By Juniata L. Shepperd.

The strata is layers of various kinds of bread, cheese, eggs and can include milk or creams, as well as different vegetables, herbs or meats.  It is then refrigerated overnight, which allows the liquid to be absorbed by the bread and the other flavors to meld.  Feel free to invent your own combinations.  Often I have to sub cream for milk, swiss for cheddar, or ham for bacon.  It all works.  I just try to have fun with them... and clean out the fridge at the same time! 
Below is one of my family’s favorite sweet breakfast stratas; a baked strawberry French toast that was created during a camping trip.  I had neglected to pack the frozen cherries for a similar recipe I wanted to make, and the nearest town’s only option was a small tub of sweetened strawberries from a chest freezer that also held ice cream treats.  My makeshift breakfast was a hit then, but over the years I have perfected the recipe even more.   You can serve this with maple syrup, but making a batch of homemade strawberry syrup takes just a few minutes, and it really does make this dish shine.

1 loaf bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (buttermilk or potato recommended)
4 cups strawberries, quartered (fresh or frozen)
1 (4  ounce) package cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
7 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup half-and-half cream
2 teaspoons almond extract
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 loaf French bread, sliced into 1-inch thick slices
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1 cup pecans, chopped

1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup water
16 ounces frozen strawberries, thawed and quartered
1 tablespoon butter or 1 tablespoon margarine

Spray a 13x9 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.  Sprinkle bread cubes over bottom of dish.  Sprinkle berries over bread cubes.  Sprinkle cream cheese over berries.  In large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, half & half, almond extract, nutmeg & cinnamon.  Arrange French bread slices over the surface of the berries and cream cheese, creating a flat surface of bread rounds and getting in as many as possible without them popping up.  Pour egg and milk mixture over French bread slices.  Mix melted butter, brown sugar, corn syrup & pecans and spread over French bread slices.  Cover tightly & refrigerate overnight.  Remove from refrigerator and let stand 20-30 minutes before baking.  Preheat oven to 350°.  Bake uncovered 50-60 minutes.  Let sit 10 minutes before slicing.  For Syrup (can be made fresh or in advance, refrigerated, and reheated for serving):  In a saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch; add water.  Bring to boil over medium heat and boil for 3 minutes, stirring constantly.  Stir in strawberries and reduce heat.  Simmer for 8-10 minutes or until thickened.  Stir in butter and serve over French toast.

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Garlic and Chives

During the holiday season anything that can be made in advance, and still taste fresh when served, should be done ahead.  The amount of stress reduced is directly related to the enjoyment of the occasion.

Every holiday I cook for a crowd starts with planning the recipes I want to make, and when to make them.  One thing I did different this year was to make the mashed potatoes the day before the holiday meal.  Potatoes don't really seem like a big deal to make on the day, but it's just one less thing to worry about if it's already done.

There are a good many recipes posted online for make-ahead mashed potatoes, and my plan was to test one of those out before the holiday rolled around.  Of course, I didn't have all the ingredients for any particular recipe, so I had to improvise.  My immediate family really enjoyed the result, and when I made the recipe again for Thanksgiving, it was one of the factors that contributed to our early meal.  I was shooting for a 2pm dinner.  Not because I like to eat that early, but because most folks seem to schedule it at that time.  However, I've never eaten a holiday meal at the planned 2pm time.  Every holiday there is some setback (usually involving the turkey) that leaves everyone waiting around until 3 or 4pm before eating.  This year I had a pretty lazy morning; enjoying coffee and our family from out of town before starting the meal.  Even though I didn't rush around getting everything going, the make-ahead potatoes, made-ahead pies, and brining the turkey all contributed to an earlier than planned dinner.  It was the exact opposite of every other holiday I've had or been involved with.  The turkey was perfectly cooked in half the time of a non-brined bird, and we found ourselves rushing around throwing together the last minute sides so we could eat while the turkey was hot.  We didn't eat at 4 or 3, or even 2pm.  We were done and cleaned up by 1:30pm!

Take a little extra stress off yourself this holiday season.  Make your mashed potatoes the day before and spend more time relaxing with your family. The following is two of my recipes combined into one delicious pan of mashed potatoes.  Roasted garlic makes plain white potatoes into something special, and it's easily done while you're peeling and boiling potatoes. 

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Garlic and Chives
1 whole head of garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
16 ounces organic chicken broth
4-5 lbs russet potatoes
16-20 ounces water (or enough to cover potatoes)
8 ounces cream cheese
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons roasted garlic (more or less, to taste)
4-6 tablespoons milk
4 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 325°F.  Remove the loose, outer layers of papery skin from the garlic bulb.
Slice off the top of the bulb, about 1/4 -1/2 inch down, cutting just enough to expose the top of the cloves, but still leave the bulb intact. Tear off a 12-inch square piece of foil, place the garlic bulb in the center and drizzle it with a tablespoon of olive oil. Bring the edges of foil up around the garlic, wrapping tightly, and bake for 35 minutes.  Remove packet from oven and carefully unwrap garlic.  Squeeze each clove of garlic out of its skin and use as needed.  Store any leftovers in a zip-top baggie in the fridge or freezer for later use.
Pour the chicken broth into a large pot and bring to a boil.  Meanwhile, peel potatoes and slice them into 1-inch thick slices.  Add to the boiling chicken broth.  If needed, add water enough to cover the potatoes.  Boil until fork tender.  Remove about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the potatoes.  In a mixer bowl, combine potatoes, cream cheese, butter, roasted garlic, milk, salt, pepper and chives.  Add small amounts of cooking liquid, as needed.  Mix or whip until combined.  Spray a 9x13 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray, and spread potatoes into dish.  Cool and refrigerate overnight.  30 minutes before baking:  Preheat oven to 350° and.remove the potatoes from the refrigerator.  Bake uncovered for 30 minutes, or until lightly browned.  Sprinkle with chopped chives and serve.
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TinksTreats by Lorilyn Tenney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License