Mornings are some of the best times during the holidays. We wake up eagerly looking forward to whatever the day promises: welcoming guests, decorating the tree, and, of course, opening presents on Christmas morning!

Now, imagine how much better that already happy time would be if you also woke up to the smell of wonderful food.

I love to cook morning meals during the holidays, whether it's breakfast for my family or special brunch parties later in the morning.

Holiday morning meals call for special recipes. They have to look beautiful, smell delicious, and be robust and warming enough to chase the chill. And, maybe most importantly, they should be fairly easy to prepare. After all, who wants to spend more time than necessary in the kitchen when you'd rather enjoy the companionship of people you love?

That's why the Italian casserole known as a strata is ideal to make any time during the next few weeks. The name refers to the fact that the ingredients are layered to make what I like to think of as a cross between bread pudding and lasagna.

Bread, of course, is only the starting point. It's important to use a rustic, country-style, unsliced loaf both full of flavor and also dense enough to absorb the egg mixture without turning mushy. The texture will be best if the bread is slightly stale, too -- several days old, making the recipe an excellent way to use up leftover bread from holiday entertaining. If your bread isn't stale, you can slice it and then toast it or dry it out slightly in a low oven. To get even more creative, look for loaves flavored with herbs, garlic, onion, or other savory additions like pitted black olives or sun-dried tomatoes.

In this recipe, I top the bread with sliced tomatoes. Other vegetables work well, too, including roasted bell pepper, caramelized onions, or sauteed mushrooms or baby spinach with a touch of garlic. You could also add your favorite cooked meat, including diced or shredded ham or crumbled sausage.

Next comes the cheese. I like Gruyere or Emmenthaler, which have a rich, nutty flavor and melt well. Jack, Fontina, or mozzarella also work fine.

Up to this point, the assembled strata can be covered and refrigerated overnight: yet another reason it's ideally convenient for a holiday breakfast. Finally, the layers are topped with a mixture of beaten eggs and milk before being baked until golden, yielding beautiful and delicious results with very little effort.

But the ease doesn't stop there. Delicious hot from the oven, the strata is also good served warm from a buffet. That means guests who arrive late or linger longer than expected can enjoy can still enjoy this easy holiday morning treat.

Strata With Tomatoes & Gruyere

Serves 4 to 6

1/2 pound stale country-style bread or French bread

1 garlic clove, cut in half

Vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray

1 cup finely shredded organic Gruyere or Emmenthaler or Swiss cheese

2 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and thinly sliced

6 large cage-free eggs

2 cups organic milk

1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard

3/4 to 1 teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

With a sharp bread knife, cut the bread into slices 3/4 inch thick. Rub one or both sides of each bread slice with the cut sides of the garlic clove halves, using more or less depending on how garlicky you want the strata to be.

With the vegetable oil or nonstick spray, lightly coat the inside of a 12-by-10-inch baking dish or gratin dish.

Place the bread slices in the dish in a single even layer, cutting or tearing them as necessary to make them fit. Evenly sprinkle half of the cheese over the bread. Evenly layer the tomato slices on top, then sprinkle the remaining cheese evenly over the tomatoes.

Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Add the milk, mustard powder, and salt and pepper to taste and beat until thoroughly combined. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the layered ingredients in the baking dish.

Bake the strata until it looks slightly puffed up and the top is golden brown, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve the strata hot from the oven or warm as part of a buffet, using a large serving spoon to scoop it onto individual serving plates.


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