Last week I cooked brunch for a unique class reunion. The party, scheduled for a Sunday morning, was held in a gracious apartment overlooking a large city park. Bowls of tiny daffodils bloomed on the windowsill laughing at snowflakes drifting through a pale yellow sky.
The guests of honor, all graduates of the same program, had never met although they had intersected in the learning environment. No, this wasn’t an online university. The guests, all babies no more than 5 months old, had graduated in utero. And now the parents decided to get them together.
The slightly sleep-deprived adults, thirty-something professionals, trickled in slowly that morning, toting the little ones in backpacks and car seats, each with a tale about the difficulties getting out of the house with all the right equipment. The babies, all firstborns, were spiffed up in their best outfits, which had been unwrapped at showers held months earlier. One little guy sported a gray cable cashmere “onesie” accessorized with coordinated bow tie, booties, and “binky” clip.
The parents were delighted to be in the company of people who spoke their new language. Conversations spun around pediatricians, growth, sleeping and eating schedules, processed vs. homemade baby food, and diaper contents. The babies generally preferred to ignore one another, instead napping, gurgling, waving their arms and sending the occasional gassy smile in no particular direction.
The only female baby in the group kept eyes firmly on daddy, who commented that she – or may he – was interviewing future prom dates. Nobody cried.
Meanwhile a brunch buffet kept the parents well fed and hydrated while doing the mom-and-dad pass off. I set up an array of goodies meant for easy self-service and designed to taste good either hot or at room temperature. No eggs Benedict of Bloody Marys for this crowd. Instead, a mixed fruit salad, a mixed green salad with a tangy dressing, a thick frittata, and a strata that incorporated all the breakfast essentials. Sweet. Savory. Sausage. Ham. Eggs. Cheese. Gallons of coffee and pitchers of juice, all iced, for the sake of safety.
Sweet or savory strata are good enough for any brunch, even without a baby in sight. Usually a strata is made with layers of sliced bread, the filling between each layer. I start mine with bread cubes, more in the spirit of a bread pudding. I still put down layers and add the fillings in between, but I feel that the egg mixture has a better chance to soak each bit of bread and meat or cheese of vegetables with its goodness trickling slowly between the cubes.
I don’t believe that all stratas must be created savory. I’ve included a sweet one here, one of my special favorites.
CHEDDAR & SAUSAGE STRATA
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Use breakfast, Italian, or chorizo sausage here. Cook the sausages ahead until well browned. Slice in coins or on the diagonal. If the flavor mix warrants it, you can add layers of chopped roasted red peppers and/or sautéed sweet onion.
14 slices firm, white sandwich bread, about 1 pound
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
6 large sausages (or 12 small), cooked and sliced
1 cup coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
8 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
¼ teaspoon salt
ground black pepper, to taste
1. Butter (used about 1 quarter of the stick of butter) a 2-quart baking dish.
2. Cut the bread into 1-½ to 2-inch cubes and transfer to a large bowl.
Add the cooked sausages and grated cheddar cheese and toss well. Transfer everything to the baking dish.
3. Whisk together the eggs, milk, salt and pepper (in the same bowl used to toss the bread cubes). Pour this mixture over the bread and press the bread down with a spatula so that it is soaked. Set aside, covered, in the refrigerator, for 2 to 8 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Melt the remaining butter and pour evenly over the top of the contents of the baking dish. Cover with foil, and transfer to the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Take off the foil and finish cooking for about 15 minutes or until the top is golden brown and puffs up slightly.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Use a slightly different bread base – croissants, challah or brioche. Dry fresh croissants in the oven on low heat, about 200F, for about an hour. Resist the urge to buy semisweet chocolate chips for this; buy a bar of bittersweet chocolate and break it into pieces.
Use a 2-½ quart baking dish for this. Place a sheet pan on the oven shelf below the baking dish to catch any spills.
Serve warm from the oven or at room temperature. Pour the warm chocolate sauce over it.
8 medium slightly stale croissants, cut into cubes
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1-½ cups dried cherries, plumped in orange juice for 30 minutes
3 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
1-1/3 cup milk
¾ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Butter a 1-½ quart shallow baking dish. Arrange half the croissant pieces in the baking dish in one layer. Sprinkle half the chopped chocolate and all the cherries in one layer. Top with the remaining croissant cubes.
2. Whisk together eggs, sugar, milk, ½ cup cream, vanilla and salt in a bowl until well blended. Pour evenly over croissants, soaking them. Cut the butter into bits and dot it over the top of the pudding. Cover with plastic wrap; set in the refrigerator for 1 hour to 8 hours.
3. Preheat oven to 350F.
4. Bake pudding on the middle shelf of oven until puffed and golden, about 40 minutes.
5. Set a small metal bowl or small saucepan set over a smaller saucepan of simmering water. Add the remaining chocolate and stir until nearly melted. Whisk in remaining cream and a pinch salt. Cover and keep warm until serving.
• Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at KitchenCall@gmail.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.