This weekend Matt and I took a whirlwind trip to upstate New York. The excuse: to celebrate the birthday of a dear friend. We met Katia (and her boyfriend, Kenan) as graduate students back in New York City. They are still there, which is one of many reasons that the city seems altogether too far from Boston, even if it’s really only a few hours away.
This weekend a whole bunch of us crowded into a rental house perched off a country road in Woodstock, the same little town where I spent a month writing in the autumn of 2009. Back then, I wrote: “It’s so quiet at night I can hear the crickets. I can hear water trickling from down the road. It gets so dark that the moon illuminates the trees, shimmering through the leaves like diamonds, and it’s not hard to imagine all sorts of ghosts waiting just behind the creek.” Not much has changed.
On this weekend, we hiked up a(n icy) mountain, exploring the graying shell of what once was a hotel and climbing a fire tower that made me feel a bit dizzy when I looked down. We played football (poorly) on the front lawn of our house and communed with the glowing (Super)moon while drinking beer on the porch, inhaling the scent of charcoal from the grill. We ate a lot of good food, including an excellent carrot and feta salad, and a lemon cake so finely wrought it could have come from a professional kitchen. We drank (quite) a bit. It was fun.
Six couples stayed in the house, and each one was responsible for one meal over the two-day stay. Matt and I were assigned breakfast on Saturday. I decided to make a spinach and cheese strata, mainly because I could prepare the entire thing Friday before we even got in the car and the next morning all I would have to do is roll out of bed and stick it in the oven. Matt offered moral support.
This strata has been written about elsewhere. I’ve made it a number of times now, though, and I just love it. Well, I love most things that involve any combination of French bread, eggs, spinach, Gruyere, and Parmesan cheese. But there is something about the texture of this strata that I find addictive. The bread soaks up the custard, creating an almost pudding-like interior, with a crunchy, crusty top. It’s a perfect make-ahead dish for a crowd, especially a crowd of city-folk waking up to a cold country breeze and the happy sounds of birds chirping in the woods.
Spinach and Cheese Strata
Adapted from Gourmet
1 (10-oz) package of frozen spinach, thawed
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
8 cups French bread (about 1/2 pound), cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyère (about 6 oz)
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 2 oz)
2 3/4 cups milk (I used whole)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Squeeze the water out of the spinach, and then chop fine.
In a large skilled, cook the onion in the butter over medium heat until soft, 4 – 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and the nutmeg. Cook another minute, stirring. Add the spinach. Take off from the heat.
In a well-buttered baking dish (a 3-quart gratin dish, or some other shallow, preferably ceramic baking dish) spread a third of the bread cubes. Then add a third of the spinach mixture, spreading evenly. Then: one third of each cheese. Repeat twice with these layers. End with cheese.
In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, and Dijon. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Pour this evenly over the strata in the baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and chill the whole thing for at least 8 hours, but up to one day.
To bake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Let the strata stand at room temperature for about a half hour. Bake, uncovered on a center rack until cooked through—about 45 – 55 minutes. It will be puffy and golden brown.