The A Good Appetite has been playing with this idea recently--see here, here and the original source at the Jam and Clotted Cream blog here. The idea seemed naggingly familiar so I did a bit of research and, yep, they've managed to independently reinvent the traditional breakfast dish cheese strata. Of course they've gussied it up a bit. I like their high tone versions with blue cheese, figs, caramelized leeks and whatnot, but I've got my rapidly staling polenta bread to work with and I don't think high tone is a real option. So, classic Americana it's going to be.
I changed all the flavors around, but I went, more or less, by the ingredient ratios in the recipe from Jam and Clotted Cream cut down by a third as I was throwing this together with what was in the house and that's all of the melty cheese I had on hand.
7 half-inch slices polenta bread
1/2 medium onion, sliced thin
2 jalapenos, sliced thin one seeded
1/2 cup shredded good quality ham
10 ounces shredded cheese (I used mostly Jack and Swiss with a bit of Cheddar and a little fresh mozzarella)
1 scant cup milk
1 6 oz can of evaporated milk (My preferred mac & cheese recipe uses evaporated milk to add body. I figured it would work well here too)
3 small tomatoes, sliced
seasoning to match your cheese (I used a pinch of a French herb mix to match the Swiss cheese and Dijon mustard I used)
1. Sweat onions, peppers and ham with a pinch of salt in a bit of butter and olive oil until soft.
2. Cut crusts off bread if you wish (I did) and cut into pieces a few inches on a side. Coat one side of each piece lightly with butter and mustard.
3. Mix eggs, milk and evaporated milk with a bit more salt, pepper and maybe a few dashes of hot sauce.
4. Lay out a third of the bread (coated side up) in an 8"x8" baking dish. Add a third of the onion mixture, then a third of the cheese then a third of the egg mixture. Repeat two more times. (I found that I didn't have quite enough to really fill an 8x8 dish, but it all expands in the oven so that's OK.) Let soak for 20 minutes. You'll notice that the egg mixture drained to the bottom so you might want to baste a little but don't sweat it. At some point during the 20 minutes layer the sliced tomatoes on top.
5. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake 30 minutes in the bottom half of the oven and then 8 minutes on the top rack to get some good browning.
The results are nothing spectacular, but I knew that going in. The custard binds everything together physically, but the flavors are still discrete. There are tastes of the crispy browned cheese, the custard-soak rejuvenated bread, the brightly flavorful roasted tomato, the buttery sweet onions and hot peppers and hints of vinegary mustard are all plenty tasty unto themselves (Oddly, no trace of the ham. Huh.) but it doesn't add up to anything more. Still, good basic hearty fare drowning in starch, salt and fat so I can't complain too much. And there's certainly plenty of room for experimenting with different flavor combinations if I want to get fancy next time.