It is easy to see why cooks love breakfast casseroles. They can be made ahead. They are hearty and satisfying. They handily serve a group. It's the name that trips us up. People are leery of casseroles, which is why I prefer to call this, my signature crowd-pleasing brunch bake, a savory bread pudding.
A casserole by any other name is swell to eat.
This bread pudding is deeply flavored, brimming with ham, cheese, and fresh herbs. It's tender and custardy on the bottom and crouton-crunchy on top. The gorgeous and fragrant roasted red pepper sauce is the perfect finishing touch.
To make this recipe meatless, replace the smoked ham with 1 pound of assorted fresh mushrooms sautéed in a pat of butter and a splash of good olive oil. To keep the mushrooms from turning mushy, cook them in batches, spread them out on a baking sheet to cool, and don't salt them at all. Blot away any liquid with a paper towel before adding them to the pudding mixture.
Now, on to the sauce, which really is the kicker here. This sauce is silky and sultry. The secret ingredient is smoked paprika, also known as pimentón. Smoked paprika is made from pimentos that are dried over smoldering oak before they are ground, which gives them a deep, natural smokehouse flavor. It has become so popular in recent years that it is available in most well-stocked grocery stores. I find it indispensable.
Savory Bread Pudding with Spinach, Chèvre, Smoked Ham
Serves 6 to 8
1 cup whole milk 4 cups 1-inch cubes crustless Italian or French bread 3/4 cup heavy cream 3 large eggs 2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves 2 cups diced smoked ham (8 ounces) 1 (16-ounce) package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed as dry as possible 6 ounces chèvre or other fresh goat cheese, coarsely crumbled (about 1 cup) 3 ounces Asiago cheese, coarsely grated (about 1 cup) 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup) Smoky Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, for serving (recipe follows)
Stir together the milk and bread in a large bowl. Let stand until the bread absorbs the milk, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the cream, eggs, garlic, salt, pepper, nutmeg, sage, and thyme in a medium bowl.
Spread half of the bread into a greased 2 1/2-quart shallow baking dish. Scatter half of the ham, spinach, chèvre, and Asiago over the bread. Drizzle half of the cream mixture evenly over the top. Add the rest of the bread to the dish. Scatter the remaining ham, spinach, chèvre and Asiago over the bread. Drizzle the rest of the cream mixture over it all. Sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top.
Cover the dish tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Uncover the dish. Bake until the pudding is firm in the center and browned around the edges, 50 to 60 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes. Serve warm with a little of the sauce.
Smoky Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
makes about 2 cups
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 2 cups chopped yellow onion 4 garlic cloves, chopped 2 cups drained and chopped roasted piquillo or other sweet red peppers 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika, or to taste 1/4 cup sherry vinegar 1 tablespoon tomato paste 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until very soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and peppers and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Stir in the paprika, vinegar, tomato paste, and sugar.
Purée in a blender and return to the pan or purée directly in the pan with an immersion blender. Season with salt and pepper. Check the sauce for balance; it should be sweet, smoky, tangy, piquant, and bright.
Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Store covered and refrigerated for up to one week. Stir well and check the seasoning before serving.