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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011 05:14 am

Get on a casserole

Whether hosting or attending, the casserole is a holiday mainstay. Turn the traditional up a notch with these innovative ideas.

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Casseroles are an omnipresent holiday staple, be it grandma’s chicken-stuffed cheese concoction or a fried-onion encrusted green bean favorite. But getting comfortable with a casserole recipe can make it a forgettable presence on a holiday dinner table.

“The best thing about casseroles is that you can be really creative,” says Stephanie Ashcraft, co-author of 200 Casseroles (Gibbs Smith, 2011).

Here are some ways to concoct an attention-grabbing piece that guests can really sink their teeth into.


Breakfast with a twist

Savory breakfast casseroles, called stratas, usually contain bread, eggs, cheese and often breakfast meats such as ham, bacon or sausage and vegetables such as spinach and mushrooms.

“I love starting the day with a blueberry French toast casserole and a sausage-hash brown breakfast bake,” Ashcraft says.

Including spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice is a way to sweeten up a breakfast casserole, according to Jennifer Bardell, who runs the cooking blog “The Misadventures of Mrs. B.”


A seasonal punch

Adding bursts of fresh seasonal ingredients are a sure way to give any casserole a flavor and texture boost.

“Try dried cranberries, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, even leftover turkey,” says Maryana Vollstedt, author of The Big Book of Casseroles: 250 Recipes for Serious Comfort Food (Chronicle Books, 1999).

Ashcraft agrees. “Turkey and cranberries are my favorite holiday ingredients,” she says, also suggesting pecans as a way to add a surprising crunch to every bite.

Bardall uses squash, corn and green beans to add volume to her recipes, and suggests frozen vegetables if your favorites are out of season.

“Stuffing can also be baked into a casserole,” she says, noting it’s safer to prepare stuffing outside of the bird to prevent contamination.


Healthy bakes

For family members and other guests focused on health and weight maintenance this year, crafting a casserole that is both satisfying and health conscious can be achieved by keeping a watchful eye on ingredients.

“Remember that you can always substitute low-sodium and low-fat products in the recipes,” says Ashcraft, who suggests plain yogurt instead of sour cream.

Vollstedt adds that managing and adjusting the amount of an ingredient can save room.   

“Go easy on rich sauces,” she says, adding that sticking to local, fresh produce is another way to reduce additives and sodium intake.

For a traditional green bean casserole done healthy, Bardall suggests sautéing mushrooms instead of using canned soup, and toasting onions instead of using the fried pre-packaged strips.


Mindful transportation

One thing that might get overlooked with casseroles is the transport. Unless prepared at home, moving a casserole from place to place can be a messy endeavor, which can take away from the flavor and texture. Improper reheats can also ruin the dish.

“I bake my casseroles in a Pampered Chef stone pan, cover it with aluminum foil and place it in an insulated rectangular food carrier designed to carry a 9-by-13-inch stone pan,” says Ashcraft. “The stone pan retains heat longer than normal pans while the carrier holds the heat inside the bag, insuring hot food upon arrival.”

Vollstedt suggests wrapping pans in towels or newspaper for a less expensive means of insulation. 



Blueberry French Toast Casserole

Serves 6
  • A 20 oz. slightly stale loaf of bread, cubed. Avoid Wonder-Bread types; they can make the casserole gummy.
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, cubed
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
  • 12 eggs, beaten
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1⁄3 cups maple syrup
  • Powdered sugar
  • Maple or blueberry syrup

Place half the bread cubes in a greased 9 x 13-inch pan. Layer cream cheese cubes evenly over bread. Sprinkle blueberries over top. Cover with the remaining bread cubes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla and syrup.

Drizzle the egg mixture evenly over bread. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight; remove 30 minutes prior to baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Let casserole come to room temperature, then cover with aluminum foil and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 25-30 minutes more, or until center is firm and top is golden brown. Lightly dust casserole with the powdered sugar. Serve with blueberry or maple syrup.


Sausage–Hash Brown Breakfast Bake

Serves 6-8

  • 3 1/2 cups frozen shredded hash browns
  • 1 pound sausage, browned and drained
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons black pepper

Spread the hash browns into the bottom of a greased 9 x 13-inch pan. Sprinkle cooked sausage and cheese over top.

In a bowl, combine the eggs, milk, dry mustard, salt and pepper. Pour egg mixture evenly over sausage and hash browns. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight. Remove from refrigerator 20 minutes before baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5–8 minutes more, or until center is set.



Sweet potato casserole

Serves 6-8

  • 4 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups cornflakes cereal, crushed
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup miniature marshmallows

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Place the potatoes on a lightly greased 15 x 10 x 1-inch pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until tender; let cool to touch and then peel and mash the potatoes. With an electric mixer, beat the mashed potatoes, sugar, milk, butter, eggs, vanilla and salt at medium speed until smooth. Spoon the mixture into a greased 11 x 7-inch baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the cornflakes, pecans, brown sugar and butter. Sprinkle the mixture diagonally over the casserole in rows 2 inches apart. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven; let stand 10 minutes. Sprinkle alternate rows with marshmallows; bake for 10 minutes more. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.