I've written a lot of recipes for egg casseroles. Between my recipes here and in my casserole cookbook, I've beaten and baked eggs into dozens of permutations. There's good reason for this; egg casseroles are one of the easiest ways for me to make a week of breakfast in one big batch. But honestly, I've been getting a little tired of my egg routine. I needed something new, a fresh make-ahead breakfast with all the convenience of oven omelets.
Meet the polenta breakfast bake — a no-stir, practically hands-off way to make a hearty breakfast that will last you all week.
The idea for these polenta squares originally popped into my mind after seeing Megan's delicious and inviting recipe for Herbed Goat Cheese Polenta Bites. I do love polenta for breakfast, but I'd only ever eaten it in a bowl, like creamy oatmeal. Seeing Megan's appetizer squares of polenta, I realized that these could also make a great breakfast.
But stirring polenta, while not too great a chore, was still not how I wanted to spend a busy Sunday afternoon. I remembered that polenta can also be made in the oven — baked in an open dish and stirred just once or twice. Could it work for the recipe I had in mind?
I whisked together water and milk with a few eggs and some coarse cornmeal. Then I cooked a little bacon until crispy, folded in spinach just until it wilted, and added this to the bowl. A handful of Parmesan made the finishing touch. I poured the batter into a baking pan, slid the dish into the oven, and crossed my fingers.
I stirred while baking, just to make sure the cornmeal didn't settle at the bottom. The casserole grew progressively thicker until, suddenly, it was done. I sliced it into fat squares and dug in.
I knew immediately I had found my new favorite breakfast. The casserole had the hearty, satisfying deliciousness of whole-grain cornmeal, but enriched by the eggs, which made the texture just ever-so-slightly custardy. The bacon and spinach flavored everything beautifully.
These squares are certainly sturdy enough to go with you to work in a lunch container or plastic bag. They taste good cold, warm, or hot, and they'll give you breakfast all week long. I can hardly wait to experiment with other flavors, too — like Gruyere and ham, or kale and chopped red pepper.
I hope you enjoy this as much as we have been here; it's our new favorite.
Since I published this recipe last year I discovered that people had a lot of problems with the recipe! This set off some head-scratching, and Emma and I both tested it again exactly as written and had good results. But that sometimes just happens with a recipe — I find that I'm taking something for granted or some mysterious element is going unsaid. So I set out to retest and redevelop this to make it really foolproof, as it really is such a delicious and fresh way to make breakfast ahead.
The recipe below has been redeveloped and retested and I believe that at this point it's quite reliable.
A few notes: The milk fat will make a difference in this recipe. Use whole milk; anything else will yield at least slightly different results or longer baking times. I've also been very specific about the type of cornmeal I used, and I adjusted the instructions to call for boiling water to get the dish up to temperature faster.
A last note: I noticed that some commenters felt the dish was bland. Personally, I really love the taste of the cornmeal itself and I didn't want to over-season the dish. But this time around I did increase the salt and I find an extra amount of bacon adds a lot. If you'd like to spice it up, add a few cloves of minced garlic, a teaspoon or more of dried herbs, a spice such as smoked paprika or chipotle, or another deeply flavorful seasoning.
Also, I removed a bunch of the comments responding to the previous incarnation of the recipe — not because they were critical, but because this recipe is different and I didn't want to confuse later readers with a lot of responses to an old version of the recipe.
— Faith, March 2015
Breakfast Polenta Squares with Spinach & Bacon
Makes 12 servings
6 ounces bacon, diced
1 small white onion, diced
3 ounces fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped
4 large eggs, beaten
2 cups whole milk
2 cups coarse cornmeal, such as Bob's Red Mill Coarse Grind Cornmeal
2/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, divided
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups boiling water
Preheat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9-x-13-inch baking dish.
Cook the bacon in a deep skillet over medium heat until crispy around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the onion and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes, or until the onion has softened. Stir in the spinach and cook for about 30 seconds, just long enough to barely wilt the spinach. Remove the skillet from the heat.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl and whisk in the milk, then whisk in the cornmeal and 1/3 cup of Parmesan cheese. Fold in the cooked bacon and spinach mixture, along with the salt and a generous quantity of black pepper. Pour into the prepared baking dish.
→ Make-Ahead Note: At this point the casserole could be covered and refrigerated overnight, then baked in the morning.
When ready to bake, pour in the 4 cups of boiling water and whisk to combine in the dish. Bake uncovered for 50 to 60 minutes. After 20 minutes, whisk thoroughly, moving the polenta from the edges of the pan in to the center, and moving the center of the polenta out, to ensure the polenta is baking evenly. Continue baking until the polenta looks firm and golden-brown on top, and a knife comes out clean. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan over top while the casserole is still hot.
Serve warm, cold, or hot. The polenta will be fairly soft while hot, but will firm up as it cools. Leftovers will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Updated from recipe originally published March 2014.
(Image credits: Faith Durand)