This dish started with an inspiration from a restaurant here in Chicago that has since closed. Good thing I took good notes during the few times we had breakfast there! The versions they offered were leek, ham, and Gruyere, as well as one with tomato, bacon, and Cheddar. I think the combinations are really just up to your imagination and your tastes.
The base is just the same as any breakfast casserole or strata that I would make – stale or day-old bread cut into cubes, then soaked in a custard mixture. For these, I wanted to make individual servings in ramekins, so I cut the cubes of bread on the small side so that they would be easy to stuff into the dishes. The custard mixture is about one cup of milk (or half-and-half, if you are in a more celebratory than healthy mood) to three eggs. Depending on the amount of bread you have, you can increase or decrease the amount of custard mixture – just make enough to soak the bread completely. Season with salt and pepper as you would scrambled eggs.
I got a little carried away with ingredients, but I just couldn’t resist. I started with some leeks (one large or two small), rinsed them thoroughly (they have a considerable amount of grit since they grow in sandy soil), and cooked them in some olive oil until they began to soften (a little kosher salt helps this process along). I removed those from the pan and sauteed some sliced cremini mushrooms in butter in the same pan, adding a little salt again, along with some freshly ground black pepper and fresh thyme leaves (thyme and mushrooms is one of my favorite combinations). In addition, I had some Canadian bacon on hand that I really wanted to incorporate.
The best way to bring this all together is to cube your bread into a large mixing bowl, pour over the custard, and mix with your hands. That way, you’ll be able to tell if you made enough custard to soak the bread. You can always whip up a little more egg and milk to add to it, if it seems too dry. Then, mix in your vegetables and/or meat and/or cheese in the same manner (hands) to make sure you evenly distribute – just make sure you let anything you precook to cool a bit before adding it to the mix. I used shredded Gruyere here, along with some Fontina that I needed to use up – make sure you add a nice little handful to the top before you put the bread pudding into the oven for some added browned goodness.
If you bake in (buttered) ramekins, place them on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake at 350 until golden and bubbly (about 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven). If you bake in a (buttered) casserole (like a traditional breakfast strata), it will probably take a little longer; browned and bubbling is the goal.