I am so excited to present to you the winners of our Best Healthy Casseroles recipe contest! A quick overview: we asked you to share your favorite healthy casseroles. I picked my five favorites (which was very difficult!), and each will get a new Emile Henry casserole dish, and a copy of my new book, Not Your Mother's Casseroles. Our first winner is from reader Coco of Opera Girl Cooks, and it is a delicious yet not-too-sweet breakfast casserole, made with toasty whole grain bread and a filling of apples. Read on for the recipe, and why I liked it so much.
Why I chose Coco's casserole
Now, I love breakfast casseroles. I especially love those sugary, cream-laden casseroles that we all love to eat on Christmas morning and for weekend brunch. But I'm not going to eat these every week. Too rich! So I was very happy to see Coco's casserole, which called for only a very small amount of sugar. (If it's not sweet enough for you, serve with maple syrup!) The sweetness mostly comes from a layer of apples that soak into the bottom half of the casserole. So delicious! I did update the casserole, though, to use multi-grain bread. Use the heartiest, chunkiest stuff you can find; any additional good texture will just make the casserole better.
Also, a tip: I instruct you in the recipe to cut off the crusts of the bread. This will make for a smoother, more consistent texture in the final result. But don't worry — those crusts should not go to waste. In fact, doing this will help you get two-for-one out of one loaf of bread. Simply dry the crusts in the oven and make bread crumbs out of them. (You'll find plenty of uses for yummy homemade bread crumbs in this week's casserole recipes!)
This was just such a treat. My husband and I ate it for three days straight; it lasts beautifully in the fridge. It's also firm and cohesive enough that you could cut it in big slices and wrap them in wax paper for eating on the go.
I loved the mild sweetness of the casserole and the wonderful flavor of cinnamon and apples. It's a great way to start your morning.
Look for the rest of the casserole contest winners this week — we are posting one each day!
• What makes this recipe so great?
A special casserole deserves a special name, and so I'm calling this delicious creation a strata. Made from similar ingredients to French toast, but layered with care, it makes for a beautiful presentation whether served from a buffet or in individual slices. It's flavor lies somewhere between French toast and bread pudding, taken over the top with a filling of perfectly cooked, cinnamon-y apples and a not-too-sweet cream cheese glaze on top.
After you layer the ingredients into a baking dish, the unbaked strata can sit in the fridge for up to 24 hours, ready to pop into the oven about an hour before your guests arrive. And so, there is no need to scramble while you have company, doing that harried short-order cook routine that most egg dishes require. Simply remove your beautiful casserole from the oven, slice, and serve to your appreciative and impressed audience.
• What makes this casserole health(ier)?
When I set about making a sweet strata, I found lots of recipes for French toast casseroles and bread puddings online. Most of these were packed with sugar and butter, making for an awfully heavy way to start the day! By using only 1/3 cup sugar and adding sliced apples, I created a casserole that's just sweet enough to taste like a breakfast treat. To lighten up things even further, the recipe contains no butter or oil (save for a dab to grease the casserole dish) and uses 1% milk.
Apple & Cinnamon Whole Grain Breakfast Strata
serves 6 to 8
2 cups 1% milk
1/3 cup organic cane sugar OR dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon, plus extra for dusting
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds whole-grain loaf, sliced 1/4″ thick crosswise
3 medium firm apples (about 1 1/4 pound), cored and sliced 1/4-inch thick
For the glaze
3 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons agave syrup
2 tablespoons 1% milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Lightly butter or oil a 9x13-inch casserole dish. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the eggs thoroughly. Whisk in the milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg until thoroughly combined.
Cut the crusts off the bread slices, cutting each slice into a rectangular shape. Layer half of the bread slices in the bottom of the baking pan. Layer all of the apple slices on top of the bread. Top apple layer with the other half of the bread slices.
Pour the egg mixture over the layered bread and apples. Cover refrigerate overnight. (Note: The casserole can be baked immediately, but expect it not to be quite as dense and uniform in texture.)
When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350°F. Cover the strata with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then remove foil and bake another 15 minutes. (Note: If your strata is coming straight out of the fridge, still cold, add an additional 10 minutes to the covered baking time.)
For the glaze, warm all of the ingredients together in the microwave or on the stovetop until quite soft. (I microwaved mine for 45 seconds.) Whisk thoroughly in a fork, then drizzle over the warm strata. Dust lightly with cinnamon.
Let the strata stand for 10 minutes to firm up, then serve with maple syrup and fresh fruit.
Recommended Side Dish
• Recipe: Lemon and Honey Fruit Salad
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• A copy of Faith's new book: Not Your Mother's Casseroles (Harvard Common Press, January 2011)
• A new casserole baker from Emile Henry's Urban line
(Images: Faith Durand)