ROASTED FENNEL AND CARAMELIZED ONION STRATA
This is not a cake in the usual sense, but it could fall under the category of “pudding cake” or a savoury bread pudding. The secret lies not only in the flavourful vegetables, but in the choice of bread. Rather than using the more common baguette or “crusty white bread,” I’ve chosen a flavourful focaccia. One laden with garlic and herbs will have built-in flavour, so try to seek one out at your local artisanal bakery or at one of the better grocery stores. This is a perfect brunch item, for it requires assembly the day before baking and serving. While the strata will be equally flavourful the day after baking, the crispy focaccia cubes that go on top will lose their crunch. For me, that’s one of the best parts.
1 large fennel bulb 1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil ½ tsp (2 mL) salt Pepper
2 medium Vidalia onions
1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
1 tbsp (15 mL) unsalted butter 1 tbsp (15 mL) balsamic vinegar
5 cups (1.25 L) focaccia bread cubes, about ½ inch (1 cm) square, divided 1½ cups (375 mL) whole milk
½ cup (125 mL) whipping cream
¼ tsp (1 mL) salt
½ cup (125 mL) grated Gruyère cheese, divided
1 tsp (5 mL) fennel seeds 1 For the roasted fennel, preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Trim the base and core of the fennel bulb. Slice thinly and transfer to a shallow roasting pan. Drizzle the oil over top and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper, and roast, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is tender and beginning to brown, about 40 to 45 minutes. The fennel can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated.
2 For the caramelized onions, peel and slice the onions thinly. Heat the oil and butter in a large frying pan over medium heat until sizzling. Add the onions and cook without stirring just until the onions begin to take on colour on the bottom and around the edges of the pan, about 15 to 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until the onions are soft and reduced, another 15 to 20 minutes. Reduce to low and continue cooking and stirring until the onions are browned and caramelized. The whole process can take up to an hour. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and remove from heat. The onions can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated.
3 Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
4 Spread 3 cups (750 mL) of the focaccia cubes on the prepared sheet and bake until dry and just taking on colour, 15 to 20 minutes. Reserve the remaining untoasted focaccia cubes for baking the strata the next day.
5 In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, cream, eggs and salt. Strain through a finemesh sieve and set aside. Spread 1½ cups (375 mL) of the toasted focaccia cubes in the bottom of a deep 9½-inch (24-cm) pie dish. Top with half each of the fennel and onions. Top with ¼ cup (60 mL) of shredded Gruyère. Repeat the layering with the remaining 1½ cups (375 mL) of toasted focaccia, the fennel, onions and cheese. Slowly pour the milk mixture overtop, allowing it to seep in as you are pouring. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
6 The next day, preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Scatter the fennel seeds overtop, followed by the reserved, untoasted focaccia cubes. Bake until the filling is set and slightly puffed up in the middle. If the bread cubes brown too quickly, cover the dish loosely with foil, and continue baking until set. Serve warm or at room temperature.