With the arrival of Passover and Easter, this is undoubtedly the week of the egg. Brooke Dojny explores the changing reputation of this celebrated symbolic food, and shares a recipe for an easy, cheesy strata for your weekend brunch.
“Love and eggs are best when they are fresh,” or so the old Spanish proverb goes. Actually, I’m not altogether sure about the love part, but eggs — yes!
In my lifetime, eggs have undergone an evolution similar to that of many other farm products: while fresh-from-the-farm was once the norm, inexpensive commercially produced eggs (and the salmonella scares sparked by unsanitary egg factory conditions that accompanied them) dominated for decades. Today, with raised awareness and re-educated taste buds, many of us seek out eggs that are cage-free, organic, or free-range and, if we’re really, really lucky, come from local chickens.
Once you’ve tasted fresh, farm-raised eggs, there’s no going back. The shells — usually brown but sometimes pale green or blue or cream, depending on the breed of chicken — are very hard and protect the egg inside nicely. The whites are thick and hold together, and the yolks — oh, the yolks! Bright orangey-yellow, the yolks of farm-fresh eggs stand up rounded and firm, unlike the listless, flat yolks of commercial eggs. And the flavor? Think of the difference between processed American cheese and a good aged farmhouse cheddar and you’ll get the idea. They taste like…eggs! No boring, pallid flavor profile, no off taste, just a Proustian memory of perfection.
In spring, when local hens are laying like crazy, I buy a couple dozen at a time, either from the farmers’ market or from the local woman who has a few chickens happily scratching around in her front yard. Then I eat them poached, over asparagus, with shavings of Parmesan, scrambled, with chives and a bit of goat cheese, fried, in a sandwich on whole-grain bread with ham, hard-cooked and deviled, or, for a really special breakfast, baked into a rich and cheesy strata.
This one-dish egg- and cheese-layered casserole makes an ideal breakfast or brunch dish — perfect for those visiting house guests, which, in Maine, make rather frequent appearances during the summer months.
Breakfast Cheese Strata
Everybody loves this dish, and it has the always-welcome do-ahead feature: you can put it together the evening before, stick it in the refrigerator, and it’s all ready to bake in the morning. For breakfast, you could subtract the optional scallions, or, when it’s going to be a brunch dish, add other sautéed vegetables (such as peppers or zucchini), or even layer in about half a pound of cooked and crumbled breakfast sausage.
Makes 6 servings
- 12 slices good-quality firm white sandwich bread, or 12 ounces Italian bread, preferably day-old
- 3–4 tablespoons butter, softened
- 2½ cups (about 10 ounces) grated medium-sharp Cheddar cheese
- 3 thinly sliced scallions, or 3 tablespoons snipped fresh chives (optional)
- 4 eggs
- 2½ cups whole or low-fat milk
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Grease a 9-inch square baking dish or other 2½-quart baking dish with butter.
- Cut the crusts off the bread and spread the slices with butter. Cut each slice into 3 strips. Layer half the bread in the bottom of the prepared dish and sprinkle with half the cheese and half the scallions, if desired. Repeat with the remaining bread, cheese, and scallions.
- Whisk together the eggs, milk, mustard, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the bread. Cover and let stand for at least 1 hour, or cover and refrigerate for as long as 8 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Bake the strata, uncovered, until it is evenly puffed and golden and a knife inserted near the center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Sprinkle lightly with paprika and serve immediately from the casserole.