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Christmas Brunch: Strata with Spinach and Gruyère

This recipe comes from the November/December 2001 issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine. It's an outstanding example of what strata should be: rich-tasting and hearty. And it's perfect for brunch, since the casserole is assembled the day before.

The recipe serves 6. If you've got a crowd coming for brunch, you can double the recipe, using a 9-by-13-inch dish and increasing the baking time by about 10 minutes. Or try making 2 different varieties; one of this recipe, and one Strata with Potatoes, Rosemary, and Fontina.

To dry the bread, slice it and leave it out at room temperature for several hours, or overnight. Or toast the slices in a 200-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Don't use fresh bread, which is too soft.

Weighting the strata really does make a difference in the final texture of the dish. Use 1-pound boxes of sugar, or cartons of soy milk or chicken stock, or fill a large plastic Ziploc bag with about 2 pounds of rice, and lay them on top of the strata before you refrigerate it.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 50 to 55 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

8 to 10 slices (1/2-inch thick) day-old French or Italian bread (or toasted bread, see note above)
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
4 medium shallots, minced (about 1/2 cup)
10-oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed dry
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
6 oz. Gruyère cheese, grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 large eggs
1 3/4 cups half-and-half

When bread is cool, butter the slices on 1 side with 2 Tbsp of the butter; set aside.

Heat 2 Tbsp of the butter in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sauté shallots until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add spinach and salt and pepper to taste, and cook, stirring occasionally, until spinach and shallots are combined, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add wine to skillet, increase heat to medium-high, and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside.

Butter an 8-inch square baking dish with remaining 1 Tbsp of butter; arrange half of the buttered bread slices, buttered-side up, in a single layer in the dish. Sprinkle half of the spinach mixture, then 1/2 cup grated cheese evenly over bread slices. Arrange remaining bread slices in a single layer over the cheese, then sprinkle remaining spinach mixture and another 1/2 cup cheese evenly over the bread.

Whisk eggs in a medium bowl, then whisk in reduced wine, half-and-half, 1 tsp salt, and pepper to taste. Pour egg mixture over the bread layers. Cover the surface flush with plastic wrap, and weigh down with boxes or cartons. Refrigerate overnight.

Remove dish from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Uncover the strata and sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of cheese evenly over the top. Bake until both edges and center are puffed and edges have pulled slightly away from sides of dish, about 50 to 55 minutes (60 minutes if you've doubled the recipe). Cool on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.



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