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More of a concept than a recipe

"the perfect “blotting paper” if a festive brunch is boozy or if you’ve overdone the festivities the night before: it puts you right back on the map." Jennifer Eremeeva/The Moscow Times

I have been meaning to make this particular dish - Kale pesto strata with Gruyère and mustard from the first OTK cookbook Shelf Love for some time. Ever since I got the book last year in fact. So today I thought I would finally get around to it. After all the fridge is cleared of all leftovers, I haven't made anything new for a while, or anything vegetarian come to that so, given that I have a day of no cooking in which to investigate the moment is right.

I sort of assumed from the title 'strata' that it was an Ottolenghi variation on an Italian dish. However I was quickly disabused of this notion and also of the originality of the OTK brand. In my ramble around the whole thing I also found a number of small coincidences. Such is my cooking life.

I started out by finding that I had confused the name. Without checking Shelf Love I thought that it was actually called scacchia and so this is where I started. Suffice to say, because I will come back to scacchia some time, that it is not the same thing although bread and greens are involved. Rather differently though.

So having rambled around scacchia I checked with Ottolenghi and then started going through my Italian cookbooks to find examples of strata. There were none. My last chance - The Silver Spoon - the Italian cooking bible - would surely have it I thought. But no. Well nothing called strata although there was this Rustic tomato pie which the author of a website called Cold Hands Warm Earth had made. And it was indeed the same kind of concept.

I returned to the term strata which is where I discovered a few things, and a few coincidences and that this is indeed a concept not a recipe. A method that is really a savoury bread and butter pudding.

So if it doesn't come from Italy where does it come from? Well guess what - America - and a further guess what - from The Silver Palate by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, but as you can see here even they do not claim it as their own, referring to 'the classic egg and cheese strata', although they don't tell you where that comes from.

I had been pointed to The Silver Palate by Wikipedia and, somewhat fascinatingly, although easily explained, by an article in The Moscow Times - quoted at the top of the page. It might have been The Moscow Times, but I'm pretty sure the writer is American and she's actually writing about Latvia. I guess it demonstrates food globalisation.

A mere mention in Wikipedia and hints here and there eventually led me to a website called The Twine which also referred to the first published recipe in 1902 by a lady called Juniata L. Sheppard who wrote a book with the rather daunting title A Handbook of Household Science. Perhaps it was really the first time that the term 'strata' had been used because it was really bread soaked and cooked in a white cheese sauce but with no eggs. The book has been reprinted and I found these introductory words which are very much of the period. It rather sounds like an American Mrs. Beeton:

"This text will be found useful in the class room, and it will also serve as a manual for the housewife in the farm home. It treats of the philosophy of cooking. It gives directions for preparing and serving many of the substantial, and some embellishing, dishes. It treats of the kitchen and dining room, and gives suggestions on their furnishing and care."

'Strata' of course is nowadays a geological term used for describing layers of rock. From the latin - and so therefore sort of Italian. Whatever the actual origins it's obviously just a savoury version of the very, very old bread and butter pudding (11th and 12th centuries they think), whereby you mix whatever ingredients you like together, soak them in milk and egg overnight and bake. Cheese is often involved but not always. I'm guessing vegans have ways to deal with the milk, egg and cheese problem for them. There are certainly vegan recipes out there.

The Americans regard it as a breakfast dish - most probably because of the overnight soaking which means that you can make it the day before really. All you have to do when you get up is put it in the oven to cook. Serious Eats writer Arlyn Osborne gives a detailed analysis and introduction to her recipe for a bacon, cheese and kale version. Serious Eats is into an analytic approach which is sometimes daunting but also very useful as it draws attention to potential pitfalls - like liquid from things like greens or tomatoes can make it all a bit watery if you are not careful - or what the ratio of the various ingredients should be.

There are heaps of recipes out there so here are a few - first of all just variations on the basic theme and secondly some more extreme variations. The most common variations, other than in the ingredients - and almost anything goes there - are whether you chop the bread into cubes, tear it into chunks or slice it - in which case do you stand it upright or layer it? Crusts on or crusts off? And of course what kind of bread? I saw one writer thought supermarket kind of Italian bread was best and somebody else said steer clear of brioche.

So here are some variations of the basic version: Chicken and spinach strata from Recipe Tin Eats - she actually has a few versions; Spinach and feta strata from Matthew Evans, which looks a bit runnier and saucier than most; and here's another coincidence - one from Pillsbury - the company who made bundt cake mixes. They call their version Tuscan veggie strata - perhaps they thought it was Italian too. It's actually another one of their bake-off recipes from a lady called Kim Hookman. The next one is a bit weird - Egg bhurji strata from Bon Appétit - from America to India - or is it vice versa? Another more radical version from Ottolenghi - Spicy lamb and bread lasagne; and Belinda Jefferey's Smoked salmon, caper and goat's cheese strata.

Some of those are a bit way out but then there are those who subvert the concept just a little bit further: Italian style breakfast strata with filo from The Mediterranean Dish - filo isn't Italian and neither is strata but the filling is. No bread though, so I'm not sure it qualifies really - it's more a frittata in filo pastry. Overnight sausage strata muffins - from Taste - now that could be interesting and last of all - back to Recipe Tin Eats for Cheese and bacon strata cake - which is really an ordinary strata but baked in a cake tin and unmoulded.

I started out with the intention of making my post inspiration recipe and may still do that, but I'm very tempted by Belinda Jefferey's smoked salmon version because I have some leftover smoked trout and she uses turkish bread - of which I have leftovers in the freezer. Already cut in chunks too. Mind you I also have a lot of green things from the garden that need using up, so maybe Ottolenghi ...? Decisions, decisions.

What I find a little bit surprising is why I have never really come across strata before, It seems such an obvious thing to do, and actually my starting version, which I thought was very innovatively Ottolenghi when I first came across it, is in fact a pretty standard version. His lamb one is less so, but initially at least I wanted to go vegetarian. I am also surprised that Australian cooks such as Bill Granger and Curtis Stone do not appear to have a version. And Taste only had 15 versions. It seems such an Australian kind of thing so why hasn't it hit here? Aren't we the breakfast kings?

Ours will be for dinner though.

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