Every so often, someone brings up some dish in a conversation that has me running to a dictionary afterwards, only to find it isn’t there either.
Such is strata. What you’ll find in Webster is that strata is a two-syllable noun, the plural of stratum, and in some cases, a reference to sociology–specifically social order. No help. Or, it’s a layer of materials, naturally or artificially formed, often one of a number of parallel layers one upon another. Well, as it turns out, we’re actually getting close, but still no mention of food.
The strata I know is none of these. The strata I know is actually a type of casserole. It’s kind of a combination of a quiche, frittata, bread pudding and lasagna. Sound crazy? It’s not only not crazy but also downright delicious! The most common recipes are made like a bread pudding, where all of the ingredients are placed in a bowl (diced bread cubes included) and then soaked in a custard-like mixture and baked in a casserole dish until firm.
The name, however, (back to Merriam Webster now) goes back to the fact that originally (and traditionally), this dish is layered using bread slices like sheets of pasta in lasagna. So, strata: “layers of materials, naturally or artificially formed, often one of a number of parallel layers one upon another” is completely accurate. Just think food instead of layers of atmosphere or earth.
The origins of this dish don’t go back that far (the early 20th Century), but it’s gained popularity as a sort of comfort food. Want to make one? There are so many recipes for strata, but like I said earlier, they pretty much all have two common ingredients: bread and a custard mixture. Make the custard mixture by beating together 4 eggs and 1 pint of half and half, and then season it with salt and pepper to taste.
The bread? Just tear or dice any neutral-flavored bread into ½ to 1-inch pieces, just like you would for the bread stuffing you’d make to stuff a turkey. Italian bread works great. Decide which ingredients you’d enjoy in a quiche or a frittata. Popular ingredients include vegetables, cheeses, sausages, meats, and even poultry and seafood!
Choose a casserole dish that best suits the amount of mixture you intend to make, and spray it with vegetable spray. This will make it easy to cut each and remove it from the dish once cooked.
Pre-heat your oven to 350 F.
My recipes are pretty much 1 part (sautéed) vegetables (cut into ½” pieces), 1 part cheese (if I use it at all, it’s shredded), 2 parts meats (cooked and diced), and 2 parts cubed bread. Translate all those parts into cups, and you’ll have 4 or 5 cups of mixture.
Make your custard mix and pour it over your garnish mixture. In this particular case, the 4 eggs and 1 pint of half and half may be enough, but feel free to mix up some more if you’d like yours to be more custardy. Place the mixture in your casserole and into the oven. A recipe of this size will take about 45 minutes or so to bake. Test it, like a cake, by inserting a cake tester or by pressing on the middle of the casserole. The strata is fully baked when it springs back and is firm.
If you’d like to layer your strata in the traditional way, begin by arranging sliced bread on the bottom of the dish, and then place your filling and top with bread. In this case, be sure to soak the top layer of bread well with the custard mixture. You may even find it helpful to cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil, lightly sprayed with vegetable spray, to keep it from sticking.
Depending on which ingredients you choose, you can serve your strata with gravy, a cream sauce or perhaps a cheese sauce. You might not discover the culinary strata in the dictionary, but you’ll find it easy to make. And your family might really enjoy it.