Strata Recipe

Strata recipe: Our strata ready to serve for breakfast.

Fend off Alaska winter blues with a strata start to the day

As the wind howls and the snow drifts over our lake, we are wondering when our dramatic winter weather might calm down. The sled dogs are lying on their thick beds of straw, the chickens are huddled in their coop, and we’re in the warm and toasty kitchen drinking hot chocolate.

It’s the time of year when we turn our thoughts to menu planning for the upcoming season. We’ll pull out notebooks and highlighters, calendars and sticky notes and begin the process of deciding what we’ll prepare months from now. It’s about dreaming, really — like picking out seeds from a garden catalog as we look out the kitchen window covered in snow.

No one has been traveling along the trail this week except one hearty pair of young men training for the Iron Dog Race. They drove here from Wasilla in hours — a trip that would have taken weeks or longer in an earlier decade. The people that lived here at the turn of the century were hearty souls. I know there were people here because there is an old cabin buried under the leaves and dirt behind my house some distance from what we call the Frog Pond. Whoever lived there must have had some days of windy and snowy weather like we are having now. I wonder how they occupied their time on a winter day.

We’re dreaming about fruit other than apples and vegetables that don’t hold well in the root cellar for months at a time. We love beets, turnips and parsnips, but we are beginning to dream about tender greens and pea shoots. Summer will be here soon enough.

No airplanes have been able to fly in for days due the high winds, but I am hoping to travel to Anchorage soon. It’s not as arduous a journey for me as whoever used to dwell in that now-buried cabin, or even the Iron Dog racers. I just ride a snowmachine across the lake to our airstrip and climb into a ski plane. In slightly less than an hour, I’m at Lake Hood, pulling off my bunny boots and heading for a hot shower. This week, weather permitting, Mandy is flying in with me to check on her sister who is getting ready to have a baby. Carly’s baby is due on March 3, the start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Strata recipe: Cut up the day-old bread into cubes.
Strata recipe: Mix the half-and-half and eggs to make a custard.
Strata recipe: Brush the baking dish with olive oil.
Strata recipe: Layer the bread into the baking dish and cover with cheese.
Strata recipe: Add onions and herbs.
Strata recipe: We used sausage and bacon for our strata.
Strata recipe: A view of the strata layers.
Strata recipe: Pour the custard over the bread cubes.
Strata recipe: Cover the strata with plastic wrap...
Strata recipe: ...And then press a plate on top.
Strata recipe: Our strata is out of the oven after one hour.
Strata recipe: Cut the strata into squares.
Strata recipe: Our strata ready to serve for breakfast.

When we’re away from the kitchen, we try to make meals for the crew staying here so they don’t have to spend time on meal preparation. Mandy makes the usual suspects for our team — lasagna, makings for taco night, and slow-roasted meats and vegetables. Last night, Mandy made a dish called a strata for breakfast in case the plane came in today (no luck — the wind is still howling). This is a perfect make-ahead dish for a hearty winter breakfast. It involves layers of bread cubes accompanied by meat, cheese and onions.

Recipe type: Breakfast
Serves: 6 to 8
Strata, translated from Latin (not Italian), is an all-American dish that has been reinvented over the years with ingredients of the moment -- mushroom soup in the 1950’s, jars of pimento in the 60’s, pesto in the 80’s and so forth. You’ll find strata living in the repertoire of nearly every current celebrity chef. Here’s our version but, of course, like many of our recipes, it is almost infinitely variable.
  • 3 cups half and half
  • 6 eggs
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1-1/2 cups day-old bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 8 cups)
  • 1 cup sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1-1/2 cups Gruyere or other Swiss-style cheese, shredded
  • 1 small bunch fresh Italian parsley, stemmed and minced
  • ½ pound Italian breakfast sausage, removed from the casing and fried
  • 3-4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
  1. Combine the milk, eggs and salt and pepper. Brush a 9-inch by 9-inch baking dish with some of the olive oil. Add the remaining oil to a sauté pan over medium heat. Add in the onions and sauté until they are softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add in the garlic and continue to sauté, an additional 3-4 minutes.
  2. Add in half of the breadcrumbs to the bottom of the baking dish. You can either arrange the bread cubes neatly or just toss them in and spread them around. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the bread, then half the onions and garlic, some parsley and all of the sausage.
  3. Add on the next layer of bread cubes. Cover the bread with the remaining cheese, onions, and parsley.
  4. Pour the milk and egg mixture over the bread cubes, slowly so the custard can distribute through the nooks and crannies. Cover the baking dish with a piece of plastic wrapping. Set a plate on top of the baking dish to encourage the custard to soak into the bread.
  5. The best approach is to leave the strata overnight in the fridge, remove in the morning, wrap in aluminum foil, and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. Remove the aluminum foil and continue to cook for about 15 minutes to puff and brown the top. If you can’t wait until morning, the dish is OK to serve after about 30 minutes of soaking time.
  6. Cut the cooked strata into squares and serve with your favorite egg-and-cheese-and-sausage condiments.