Being an avid reader of other people's blogs, as I've expressed here previously, I really love it when I find a "must try" recipe. While sometimes I find other people's cooking experiments to be interesting and intriguing, many of them don't inspire me to actually attempt to recreate their culinary endeavors.
One blog that I can usually find great ideas from is The Kitchn. I became hooked on it after a co-worker got me into checking out Apartment Therapy on a regular basis. I'm a huge fan of design and, as they often highlight solutions to storage/space issues (a perpetual New York apartment-dweller's challenge), it's one of my go-to sites on a regular basis. Their kitchen-oriented features are put together in a separate blog.
I was poking around in there a few weeks ago, when I was kind of in a cooking mood, and found a recipe that looked too good to pass up: "Ham and Cheese" Breakfast Casserole. Now, we didn't grow up eating things like this for breakfast. Eggs were usually scrambled or in omelets, and then there was the waffles/pancakes category, and then the cold cereal or oatmeal option for the morning meal. Casseroles contained tuna (primarily) or maybe you could consider a baked pasta or chicken dish a "casserole," but it wasn't generally something eaten at breakfast.
One Easter Brunch when I was living in the DC area, pre-graduate school, I was introduced to the eggy-cheesy a.m. version of this one-pan dish. A roommate of mine and I were cooking for some friends, and she came up with the idea to throw a breakfast casserole together as it was a. relatively quick to do and b. required little attention once assembled beyond making sure it didn't burn in the oven. She grew up in the Midwest, so I don't know if these are more popular out there, but the only other time I've had this dish was in grad school, when another Midwesterner hosted a brunch and served one that was similar.
With the weather still being frigid to maybe-not-so-frigid around here, the idea of eating a warm, hearty weekend breakfast while lingering over a cup of milky coffee just seemed like something that would hit the spot. Fortunately, too, I live in a neighborhood where all the ingredients were within about a five-block walking distance and could easily be obtained during a brisk and brief Saturday grocery shopping excursion.
As directed, I assembled it the night before so that all the ingredients could meld together and so that the dry bread could soak up the liquid. I think that the only change I might make in future would be to figure out how to use up all of the loaf of challah in this dish, as I had some left over. I would also cut back just a little on the pancetta (I know, hard to believe that I am saying that, but it did seem to overpower the dish just a bit.). I think that a good French country ham might work, too, or some nice, thick-cut country bacon.
Once again, my oven did not disappoint. It is uncanny how it knows just how melted to get the top, with just the hint of crustiness on the cheese, but not enough to make it an inedible block of hardened fat. This was cooked through so that the bread was moist, the bacon's crunchy, smoky, saltiness giving a kick throughout, with the thyme lending a bit of earthiness to the dish.
And, when plated, the dish's stringy, gooey, lusciousness is even more apparent. It makes great leftovers, as well, as my stomach can attest to having enjoyed this several times for breakfast over the past week.