The holidays were especially gratifying this year in St. Augustine. After all, Hurricane Matthew was only a few weeks ago, and it seemed as if all of the business owners, residents, and even visitors wanted to give the celebration their all.
Trolleys were full of people singing Christmas carols, with lots of laughing and holiday good will (although I have to admit, I always jump when a whole train-full of people pass me at night and yell “Merry Christmas!”, gleefully led by a trolley driver in an elf hat). Nights of Lights was more festive than ever–we personally hung extra lights this year, both at the inn and at our house, and it seemed as if that was a popular response to the weeks of long hard work that we’ve all seen since October 7.
We always try to make the holidays special for our guests, and this year was no different. This year, I shared a little goodie bag of peppermint bark with each of our guests as they checked out…just a little thank you to them for spending their holidays with us.
We also rolled out a new breakfast entrée, one that I think is absolutely delicious. The hub and I first enjoyed this strata in Cape May this summer, during our annual visit to our old New Jersey stomping grounds. We stayed at the Mooring this year, and the owners Leslie and Vince were lovely hosts and excellent cooks. The Italian strata they served was a complex blend of savory and sweet, with multigrain bread giving the dish a lot of texture and body, pancetta offering a little saltiness, and apricot preserves adding a little sweet. There was a lot of depth to the dish, and once I saw the long list of ingredients, I understood why.
I’m not going to lie: this is not a quick recipe to make. The ingredients are best when they are chopped very finely, and–as I mentioned–there is a long list of things to be chopped. Leslie and Vince have 9 rooms, and typically make one pan of the strata at their inn. We make four.
But the dish is worth it, and we plan to do it only do it a few times of the year.
If you have problems finding any of the ingredients (we often have to go to 2 or 3 grocery stores before we can find everything), here our my suggestions: the pancetta can be swapped out with bacon, or even cubed ham (I would just make the cubes quite small). The Asiago cheese can be swapped with parmesan shavings, and the mascarpone cheese can be made by mixing 1 block of cream cheese with 1/3 cup of sour cream and 1/4 cup of heavy whipping cream. It makes about a cup and a half. (Note: These substitutions also lower the cost of the recipe significantly. I learned how to make mascarpone cheese when we first bought the inn and I couldn’t spend $4 on a small container to make my raspberry tiramisu–especially when the dessert required 3 containers! Since the inn has become more popular, we’ve been able to actually buy the called for ingredients, but it’s still a great tip, especially if you can’t find mascarpone in your area, or if you forget to buy it and you don’t feel like going out again).
We served this strata on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. I hope you make it on a special day for you–let us know in the comments how it turns out!
Cape May Strata
1/3 pound pancetta, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. butter, divided
1-1/3 cups finely chopped sweet onion
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
3 cups fresh baby spinach, coarsely chopped
5 cups cubed multigrain bread
½ cup sliced almonds (optional)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 carton (8 oz) mascarpone cheese
1 cup (4 oz) shredded part-skim mozzarella
½ cup shredded Asiago cheese
1 cup apricot preserves
3 Tbsp. minced fresh basil
In large skillet, cook pancetta until crisp. Remove with slotted spoon; drain on paper towels. Discard drippings, reserving 1 Tbsp. in pan.
Add 1 Tbsp. butter to droppings; heat over medium high heat. Add onion; cook and stir 4-6 minutes or until tender. Transfer onion to large bowl.
Heat remaining butter in pan. Add mushrooms; cook and stir 2-3 minutes or until tender. Stir in spinach; cook 30-45 seconds or until wilted.
Add bread cubes, mushroom mixture, pancetta and, if desired, almonds to onion; toss to combine. Transfer to greased 13 x 9 inch baking dish.
In a large bowl, beat eggs, cream, salt and pepper until blended. Beat in mascarpone cheese just until blending; pour over bread. Sprinkle with mozzarella and Asiago cheeses; spoon preserves over top.
Refrigerate, covered, several hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350. Remove strata from refrigerator while oven heats. Bake, uncovered, 35-45 minutes or until golden brown and a knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Sprinkle with basil. Let stand 5-10 minutes before cutting.