When I was still a young homemaker, I discovered local cookbooks.
Church groups, school fundraisers and everyone else who decided it would be nice to put a bunch of their favorite recipes into a real, bound book would gather them up and send them off to a company that did just that.
Even now, it isn't uncommon to find plastic ring-bound cookbooks from the Polish-American community, the local firefighters auxiliary or any local church. If you travel, you can even find these cookbooks offered for sale in out-of-the-way diners and souvenir shops. A few of mine even came from yard sales.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Kathleen Evanoff
Breakfast strata is a family favorite that came from the United Methodist Women of Newton Falls cookbook. It’s good for guests and holiday breakfasts, and can be mixed the night before to pop in the oven in the morning.
It is in these cookbooks we can find the best recipes. They are the best because they weren't created in a test kitchen by experts. They were devised and revised in someone's home and the recipe was likely fed to their family. The recipes made it into the cookbooks because they were used over and over. The recipes were saved for family picnics, potluck dinners and some even became family comfort food. They were shared among friends and family. They made it into the books because they were the favorites.
It was in such a cookbook where one of my keepers was discovered: breakfast strata. There are plenty of strata recipes on the Internet, and I've tried a few, but this recipe, from the United Methodist Women of Newton Falls, is the best I've ever had. I've made it for holiday breakfasts when everyone is sleeping in and I'm the only one awake early enough in the morning to pop it into the oven. I've made it for out-of-town friends and have shared the recipe more than once. One out-of-town friend asked for the recipe after spending a few days with us, and now it's a holiday breakfast tradition in her family.
The ingredients are simple: eggs, milk, ham, broccoli, bread and shredded cheese.
10 pieces bread
3 cups milk
2 cups ham, cubed (If using sausage, brown it first)
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 package frozen broccoli, thawed and drained
Place bread in a 9- by 13-inch greased pan. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs and add the rest of the ingredients. Pour the mixture over the bread in the baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate eight hours or overnight.
Bake covered at 350 degrees for 90 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Take the cover off the last 20 minutes of cooking. Let set 10 minutes before cutting.
The method is simple. Cube or tear the bread into pieces, mix in the rest of the ingredients and pour it over the bread.
Breakfast is served in one dish. Accompany it with some fresh fruit and you have a complete meal without leaving behind a sink filled with dirty pots and pans. And to make it even easier, it is all put together the night before, refrigerated overnight so the luscious custard can soak into the bread, and simply popped into the oven the next morning.
By the time everyone is awake, it is ready to serve.
I like to use a flavorful bread, such as an egg bread, potato, Italian or French. Some cooks will tear the bread into pieces, but I like to cut it into evenly shaped cubes. Others will simply layer the bread in the bottom of the freezer-to-oven-proof baking dish.
You also can change up the ingredients if you like, eliminating the broccoli for those vegetable haters or using sausage instead of ham.
To lighten the meal, use low-fat cheese and replace half the eggs with an egg substitute.
The recipe makes a lot, but it freezes well and reheats wonderfully in the microwave.