The Recipe: A new master recipe, this time for an oh-so-easy make-ahead breakfast casserole that flies together in 15 minutes. Unlike many breakfast casseroles, it's packed with protein but just a touch of cheese. Yes, it's Weight Watchers friendly and low-carb! Options for on-the-go portable breakfast-casserole muffins and individual ramekins.
The Conversation: How a "whole foods" cook comes to accept the convenience and affordability of frozen hash brown potatoes. Have you accepted similar convenience foods? What works in your home?
The first time I reached into the grocery-store freezer for frozen hash brown potatoes, discordant bells clamored, if only in my head. Frozen hash-brown potatoes? Not Alanna! Clang! Crash! Bang!
But let's back up a few months, shall we, to learn how I came to discover frozen hash browns?
It all started last fall when we drove from St. Louis to Texas with my dad to visit my sister and her family. To break up the long trip, we spent the first night with my dad's cousin and his wife in southwest Missouri. For breakfast, Mardellya popped a casserole in the oven and an hour later, breakfast was on the table, hot and hearty and more egg-y than the usual cheese-y breakfast casseroles. I had to have her recipe!
First though, back home I checked the ingredient list on a bag of frozen hash brown potatoes, expectingly, frankly, a long list of unspellable, unpronounceable, indeterminable ingredients. At first, I was buoyed to find a short ingredient list. Then reality set in.
POTATOES. Okay, so far, so good!
DEXTROSE Uh oh. What's dextrose, anyway? I had to look it up. According to LiveStrong, dextrose is a form of glucose, our bodies' primary fuel. It is widely used in the processed-food industry to promote browning and in the U.S., anyway is usually produced from corn. (Remember how the Omnivore's Dilemma talked about how corn has insinuated itself into soooo many food products? Case in point. Potatoes too, it seems.)
DISODIUM HYDROGEN PYROPHOSPHATE.
GREAT IRONY I vote for adding irony to the ingredient list because the first additive "promotes" browning and the second one "prevents" browning. Isn't that a double negative, putting us right back where we started, just plain potatoes? Harumph.
Now many good cooks take processed foods in stride. But I have been a "whole food" cook my entire life, even before it was the "cool". It's why until now I've never once bought frozen hash brown potatoes! (Now you better understand why all those bells were going off!)
But here's what I've concluded, what's right for me, for the people I love. My rationale says that a bag of frozen hash brown potatoes may not be a "whole food" but it's as close as a convenience food can get. Affordability matters too: a 30-ounce bag of hash brown potatoes costs about $3, and honestly, price makes a difference.
We all make choices in life. I love my grandmother's Tomato Soup Vegetable Salad and my mother persuaded me there's a time and place for a cake mix, à la Southern Belle Lemon Layer Cake. I made room for them in my life and my Recipe Box.
So I have decided that frozen hash brown potatoes are okay – not ideal, but okay – especially if it means that I can get hot breakfast instead of cold cereal into a man flying off to court early-mornings.
Life. It's full of trade-offs and compromises. This is one I can live with.
But whew. THAT WAS HARD.
Once decided, I've been a woman on a mission! Would you believe that in four months, I've made this Breakfast Casserole twelve times? I wanted to figure out what really works, what doesn't, what's worthwhile, what's not. Every casserole has been different, everyone has been greeted with enthusiasm, the morning of and warmed up later. I wanted to own – OWN – this Breakfast Casserole.
Call it a master recipe, call it a concept recipe but the base recipe is excellent all by itself, you won't go wrong. But then, adapt away, based on what's on hand and what appeals and your own family likes!
BREAKFAST CASSEROLE with
EGGS & HASH BROWN POTATOES
Optional fridge time: up to 12 hours
Oven time: 1 hour
Makes a 8x8 pan for 6 generous servings or 9 smaller ones
- 7-8 ounces frozen hash-brown potatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 4 ounces grated cheese
- 7 large eggs
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 tablespoon prepared mustard
- Salt & pepper to taste
OPTIONAL MIDDLE LAYER, see ALANNA's TIPS
SALSA & CHEESE LAYER
- 7 ounces mild chunky salsa
- 1 ounce grated cheese
Spray a 8x8 baking pan. If baking right away, heat oven to 350F.
POTATO BASE In a bowl, mix all ingredients, breaking apart the potato pieces. Spread evenly across the pan.
EGG MIXTURE In the same bowl, whisk the eggs until no signs of yolk or white are visible. Whisk in the remaining ingredients. Pour over the Potato Base, covering the entire base; if needed, use the back of a spoon to press the Potato Base to evenly distribute the Egg Mixture.
SALSA & CHEESE LAYER Gently spread salsa atop the Potato Base-Egg Mixture. Sprinkle with cheese.
TO BAKE RIGHT AWAY Bake for 60 minutes. Let rest for 5 - 10 minutes before slicing.
TO HOLD If needed for late-risers or late-arrivals, cover the fully cooked casserole with foil and hold in a 180F oven for up to 90 minutes.
TO BAKE LATER Cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 12 hours. In the morning, set the oven to 350F, there's no need to preheat. Uncover the casserole and bake for 60 minutes. Let rest for 5 - 10 minutes before slicing.
TO REHEAT Individual squares reheat beautifully in the microwave and "hold together" for someone eating breakfast on the run.
OVERALL For a 9x13 pan or even a 7x10 pan, double the ingredients. Be sure to season every layer. Make this once or twice, you'll never need a recipe again! And your house will smell so good when the Casserole is almost done!
BREAKFAST CASSEROLE MUFFINS The base recipe (no extras, no middle layer) fills six regular-size muffin cups, just bake for 30 minutes. I've also baked the casserole in individual ramekins, the baking time will vary with the size of the ramekins, start with 30 minutes, then check for doneness.
POTATO BASE The Ore Ida frozen hash brown potatoes bag contains 30 ounces of potatoes, enough for four casseroles, that's also just a little over an ounce of potatoes per serving, good for carb watchers. It's important to season the potatoes well, mixing the Potato Base in a bowl really helps distribute the seasoning. Cheese helps bind the potatoes and egg into something soft but more sliceable; I like the taste of four ounces but two ounces works too. I've been using grated cheddar, mostly, but some ricotta or goat cheese makes for good bursts of creaminess. I often add other foods to the base, leftover cooked meat, bacon or ham, fresh corn, leftover roasted vegetables, chopped olives, etc. For every four ounces of extras added to the Potato Base, add another egg. I once tried using about 1/3 grated raw sweet potato for added color and nutrition but unfortunately, even grated, the sweet potatoes didn't really cook.
EGG MIXTURE The basic formula is one egg per serving plus another egg. But more eggs won't hurt, it's a good way to use up extra egg yolks or egg whites. Whole milk works better than low-fat milks, making it more "egg casserole". The mustard helps the casserole brown. (Harumph. Maybe the food companies should use mustard instead of food additives.) Go easy on the pepper, here, it tends to get "stuck" atop the potatoes, not nice.
OPTIONAL MIDDLE LAYER I'm especially fond of spinach below the Salsa & Cheese layer. I start with 8 ounces of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed hard, seasoned with 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder plus a little salt and pepper. Once, I added sautéed mushrooms too, another time leftover artichoke dip. So good!
SALSA & CHEESE LAYER A touch of tomato-y acid really helps bring it all together. I've been buying the house-brand of a mild chunky salsa from my local Schnucks grocer, perfect. Just a touch of cheese is needed on the top, a thick layer is unappealing in appearance and taste.
Three Ways to Bake Easy Make-Ahead Breakfast Casserole
Easy Make-Ahead Breakfast Casserole is so flexible! The easiest way to serve is to bake the casserole and cut into squares. But for an on-the-go portable breakfast, individual muffins are extra handy. For something more elegant, or for portion-size control, use individual ramekins.
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