By Nancy Newberry
I think cooking should be fun. It’s a good thing to remember during the holidays, when things can get hectic, and cooking can become – quite unnecessarily – a stress-inducing performance. I also think cooking should be, mostly, easy. I think that cooking gets more fun, and easier, the more you do it. Once you have tried and read a number of recipes, you begin to know just how far you can push a recipe. You begin to see patterns that you can experiment and play with, and create new things, spectacular successes and maybe the occasional flop – a small price to pay for greatness.
So let’s play with a holiday breakfast tradition – the breakfast casserole. I suggest this for two reasons: casseroles are easy to prepare ahead, and bake on a busy holiday morning. Also, I’ve just recently tasted a terrific variation on baked French toast, created by a Hop Canyon neighbor of mine. She’d been to the east coast and tried Anadama bread – dense yeast bread with molasses and corn meal – for the first time. She had the idea that it would make a nice French toast and then decided to invite a bunch of pals over, so she made it as a French toast casserole. We all loved it, so we’re sharing it with you.
It’s the perfect example of creating a new recipe from the pattern that is really a basic bread pudding. Bread, cubed or sliced, doused in an egg-milk mixture, rests overnight, and then you bake it. Easy, peasy! But the excitement is in the details: what kind of bread can you use? Should the casserole be sweet or savory? How far can basic bread pudding be pushed in new directions? Well, the answer is pretty far, indeed.
In this case, the Anadama bread is dark and rich, so spicing this casserole with cinnamon and maple syrup creates a gingerbread-like comfort dish. And there’s no reason to stop there: include a cup of wild blueberries before baking to add a contrasting tangy fruit flavor. Or you could begin with a few tablespoons of butter, a half cup of brown sugar, and two chopped pears in the bottom of the casserole dish, and it would be like French toast pear upside-down cake. And there’s no reason to experiment only with sweet ingredients. You could make a savory casserole using Pueblo bread, slices of smoked sausage, shredded cheese, and some chopped green chile.
So you can see where I’m going here. Don’t throw your recipes away, by any means. But take a risk in the kitchen, and see if you can come up with greatness. Any flavor combination that makes you think, “Oh, that sounds good,” is worth trying. Start with a basic pattern and create your own experiment. Keep notes; feed your friends. This is how great chefs are made, and if not great chefs, really good home cooks. And really happy friends.
This week’s recipes, then, are for Anadama bread, adapted from Allrecipes.com, and for the casserole as our Hop Canyon chef made it – it’s really nice served with a fruit salad, crispy bacon, and a dollop of Greek yogurt. And I’ve teased out a basic formula for the egg-milk mixture to pour over any type of bread so that you can go nuts making your own breakfast casseroles. Immortality is in your hands now, and if you come up with a great recipe that everyone swoons over, let me know. We’ll put you in the newspaper.
Prep time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Makes 1 loaf
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup molasses
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees F)
3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon salt
Bring ½ cup water and cornmeal to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cook until slightly thickened; about 5 minutes. Stir in butter and molasses; let stand until lukewarm.
Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes. Add the flour, cornmeal mixture, and salt, stirring well to form a soft dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes. Alternatively, mix and knead in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer using the dough hook.
Spray the dough with cooking spray, and place in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan.
Deflate the dough and form into a loaf; place in the prepared pan. Cover and let rise until doubled in volume, about 40 minutes.
Bake in the preheated oven until the top is golden brown and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped, about 35 minutes.
Hop Canyon Anadama French Toast Casserole
Prep time: 8 hours 15 minutes
Bake time: 1 hour 15 minutes
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 cups milk or half and half
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 loaf Anadama bread, sliced 1/2 –inch thick
Melt butter with cinnamon and maple syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat. Pour into the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking pan.
Whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla extract, and salt. Layer the Anadama bread slices in the baking pan. Pour the egg mixture over the top. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Remove the casserole from refrigerator.
Bake in the preheated oven until set, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Turn out onto a platter to serve.
The Basic Formula
The basic formula is 1 egg to every 1/3 cup milk (or half and half), plus a pinch of salt. This will cover 2 slices of bread cut into cubes (about 2 cups cubes). Four times this basic formula is enough for an 8x8 inch pan; six times this recipe will make a 9x13 inch casserole. Add a little sugar, honey, or syrup, fruit, nuts, and spices to your sweet versions; Add loads of fresh herbs, cheeses, some vegetables, bacon, salami, or ham to savory variations.
Sage, mushrooms, Swiss cheese, bacon.
Green chiles, Cheddar cheese, cilantro.
Apples, green chiles, pine nuts, cinnamon.
Pecans, pears, dried cranberries, cardamom.
Nancy Newberry arrived in Magdalena from Seattle about a year ago, where her DIY food exploits are, while not quite legendary, pretty daring. She has worked in coffee shops and deli kitchens, cooked for camps and field trips, and worked as a site producer for the #1 Food and Entertainment website on the web, Allrecipes.com.