I started a tradition when my nieces (and later my nephew) were very young. Every year at Christmas, I took them to lunch at a restaurant and then we went shopping for toys and food for all the folks who didn’t have as much at Christmas as we always have. When the girls were very little, I didn’t have much experience handling kids on my own, so I chose a popular chain restaurant where I knew we could all be comfortable. I wanted them to have fun, and I wanted to avoid any meltdowns. It became for many years “our place.” But another reason I chose that particular restaurant was selfish – they served a mean Monte Cristo. A giant hunk of fried deliciousness that I couldn’t finish in one sitting. It was a little Christmas present to myself. That chain went out of business years ago, and I have yet to find a Monte Cristo that equals theirs, though we have found a new “our place.”
A real Monte Cristo is a restaurant treat for me though. I simply am not assembling, battering and frying – I’ll leave that to the professionals. The classic combination of flavors, though, is downright good – turkey and ham and cheese encased in tender bread with that surprising sweet sprinkle of powdered sugar and a little dab of strawberry preserves. The idea lends itself wonderfully to the classic brunch casserole and here is my version. I like to keep it simple, with lots of ham and turkey and a lightly mustardy custard encasing it all. I generously sprinkle the top with a dusting of powdered sugar, which adds that lovely sweet edge and adds a touch of elegance, and serve place a nice bowl of good preserves next to it so each guest can dollop as much or as little as they like.
Monte Cristo Casserole makes a wonderful dish on a brunch buffet or for a family dinner. I served it to my extended family recently, and when I told them what it was, my nieces both said “oh, like that sandwich you like.” Memories made.
- 12 ounce loaf of Italian bread (soft crust)
- ¾ pound deli turkey, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
- ¾ pound deli smoked ham, sliced about 1/8 thick
- 10 ounces swiss cheese, grated
- 10 eggs
- 4 cups whole milk
- 3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon mustard powder
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- salt to taste and generous grinds of black pepper
- powdered sugar for sprinkling
- strawberry jam for serving
- Cut the bread into rough, bite-sized cubes and spread out on a baking sheet or tray. Leave to dry for a few hours (but not until crisp or hard).
- Spray a 13 by 9 inch backing dish thoroughly with cooking spray.
- Cut the turkey and ham into small pieces, then shuffle them through your fingers to separate them into a large bowl. Add the bread cubes and the cheese and toss to combine. Spread the bread mixture evenly in the prepared baking dish.
- Mix the eggs, milk, Dijon mustard, mustard powder, sugar, salt and pepper together in a large bowl and whisk thoroughly, or blend until smooth in a blender. Pour the milk mixture over the bread cubes slowly, making sure it is evenly covering the bread cubes. Push them down under the liquid if needed. Cover the dish with foil and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.
- When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400°. Take the dish out of the fridge to take the chill off while the oven is heating. Cook the bread pudding, covered, for 50 minutes to an hour until it is set and puffed up.
- As soon as you remove the casserole from the oven, sprinkle a generous layer of powdered sugar through a sieve evenly over the top of the casserole. Serve warm with strawberry jam to spoon over each serving.