Holiday Cooking Lesson 4: Observe The Oven

It’s as traditional for the British to set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve as it is for them to smoke foodstuffs the rest of the year. This New Year’s I dang near managed both.

That wretched goose fat, you see, had managed to drip all over my oven during one of the many lypo-removal processes during Christmas Day. Although I had momentarily thought “Gee Patrick, best clean that up soonish or there’ll be a conflagration later”, the ongoing festivities during the Holiday week and sent the state of my oven spinning from my mind.

I was feeling a tad smug on New Year’s Eve. There were only three of us for dinner (myself, Pamela, and that non-leaf eater Natalie) so I had planned a simple roast chicken Othello for dinner, alongside some glazed carrots and and another rather special side instead of stuffing. All very simple, easy to prepare, and ready to just chuck in the oven.

Unless, that is, you’re having a glass of wine or two in the lounge as the oven heats up, and all three of you begin to question why your eyes are watering.

ovenfireAs I got up from my seat to investigate, my mind immediately returned to Irwin Allen. There was a definite haze in the air; a haze that smelled rather distinctly of goose fat. A trip to the kitchen instantly confirmed my fears. I had forgotten to clean the oven and now it had turned into the kind of high-performance smoker that would very shortly kipper anyone within a two mile radius.

Most people have long since finished dinner by midnight on New Year’s Eve. We were barely scraping our plates by the time the chimed tolled. This was entirely because I had to turn the oven off, wait for it to cool down entirely, and then give it a thorough cleaning and rinsing before I could get the New Year’s dinner back on track. Never in my life have I been so relieved to, instead of hosting a formal dinner for 10, be hosting a dinner for three so informal that the dress code was onesies.

And at least I started the New year with a clean oven.

Now the goose fat in the oven was not the only potential source of conflagrations that night. There remained the second loaf of Challah bread that Pamela had baked so beautifully on Christmas Eve. We had eaten the majority of the first loaf on Christmas Day, and the remaining stub had proved to go very nicely with my beloved Marmite for breakfast on Boxing Day. But that second loaf had remained, and been a bit of a sore topic. On more than one occasion Pamela had pointed out, with a meaningful glint in her eye, how well Challah serves as French toast. But glint though she might, she had happened upon a somewhat immovable object.

I happen to dislike French toast.

It’s true. I’m also not a huge fan of bread pudding, particularly if it has raisins in it. I’m not entirely sure why this is, other I’ve come to believe that a sweet custard should be poured over, rather than soaked into, desserts. And anyway the French name, Pain Perdu, always seemed to indicate precisely my feelings when faced with this particular breakfast entree.

Besides, I had something far more savoury in mind for that second loaf of Challah. I’ve always been intrigued by strata. I’m not speaking here of matters geological, but rather those savoury bread puddings that are becoming very popular brunch dishes. One thing I dislike about a sweet bread pudding is the lack of textural contrast, and another is the singular flavor not. With a strata, however, you get bacon, or mushrooms, or whatever you fancy in a one dish meal that will round out flavors and add extra texture and variety. So why not apply that idea to a side dish to accompany a roast chicken? It could take the place of stuffing, and by adding veg to it, could also replace the need for a starch and a third veg! (I must add here that although I was in possession of enough goose fat to give Gertrude Ederle a swim for her money, it was going to be a fair while before I was in any mood to contemplate the future use of same.)

So I came up with a recipe that would use up that Challah, alongside leftover bacon lardons, thyme, parsley and scallions, and also allow me to introduce portobello mushrooms into my New Year’s Eve dinner.

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CHALLAH STRATA WITH BACON AND PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS (serves 10)

You will need:

  • 3/4 of a loaf of stale Challah bread, cut into big fork-sized chunks
  • 8 portobello mushrooms, cut into fork-sized chunks
  • 200g (1small packet) smoked bacon lardons, such as panchetta
  • 8 scallions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (optional. The garlic is perfect if you’re serving this as an evening side, but brunch can be a little early in the day for that adorable allium.)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 5 whole eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon paprika dulce.
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

In a large frying pan, saute the mushrooms in oil and butter until black and meaty. Remove the mushrooms and reserve. Then add the smoked back lardons to the pan, and once they’ve rendered their fat and are crisping up, add the scallions and garlic. Saute for a couple of minutes, then add the bacon, scallions and garlic to the mushrooms and mix in the thyme. Leave to cool.

Beat the eggs, milk, and paprika together in a bowl and season with black pepper and just a touch of salt. Place the Challah chunks in a large bowl and pour over the egg and milk mixture. Gently push the chunks of bread down into the mixture to help it soak in. This will seem irretrievably sloppy at first, but fear not. Then stir in the mushrooms and bacon mixture, and add the parsley.

Pour all this into a buttered baking dish (a big one- this makes a big strata), cover in clingfilm, and leave in the fridge to set for at least 2 hours. Overnight is fine, so you can make this a day in advance if that helps!

When you’re ready to cook, preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4/350f/180c

Bring the strata out of the fridge a half hour before you’re going to cook it, to bring it up to room temperature. Then remove the clingfilm and put it in the oven to bake for 40minutes to 1 hour.

I used the remaining 1/4 of the Challah loaf to make breadcrumbs, which is no more difficult than whizzing it up in a food processor. I then took about 3 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs, mixed them with a teaspoon each of the thyme and parsley, seasoned, and then sprinkled them over the strata before it went into the oven to make a crunchy top, but that’s purely optional. This would also work well with a brioche loaf, or indeed any round or braided loaf!

Serve as a side dish with a roast chicken, or as a brunch main course with poached eggs and a green salad!

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The recipe was rather a success (even amongst the fungi-phobic at the table), and also proved to be the sort of side that you can cook alongside a roast chicken, with no changes in oven temperatures or any of that bother. I would also- with a tweak that I’ll list below- happily serve it if ever I am called upon to host a brunch. It’s hearty,flavorsome, and just stodgy enough to provide the ballast you need if you’re going to see the New Year in with a drink or three. It also makes for a big dish, so would be most suitable for a larger gathering.

So as the clock ticked down to midnight, and we toasted a new year (and no more big meals to cook in the foreseeable), I briefly pondered what my culinary New Year resolutions would be. And I’ve been pondering ever since, so here they are:

  • Learn to bake your own bread. It’ll fulfill your new found need to knead.
  • Find new uses for fat. (Seriously, I have so much goose fat in the freezer I keep mistaking it for ice cream)
  • Embrace the starter. You won’t be a true grown up dinner party cook until you do.
  • Never be afraid to put a twist on “breakfast for dinner”. I don’t have to go the eggs, bacon and pancakes route, but if living in a country where the breakfast/dinner lines are blurred anyway, why not embrace that? (Anyone finding me consuming a bowl of Apple Jacks for supper should, however, immediately report me to the relevant authorities. Who those authorities are is your problem.)

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