Ham and Cheese Strata for Kate

Isn't it funny how two people can interpret or remember something very differently? My friend Kate told me a story recently that took me by complete surprise.  I was there.  I did it.  And yet, I didn't remember any of it the way she described because it was from her perspective.  It was such a joy to have her tell me her version.

The story revolved around Ham and Cheese Strata. The recipe is actually called Souffle de Queso Y Jamon in the Buen Provecho cookbook where it originated.  I was living in Mexico City in 1992 and it was a very helpful Junior League cookbook because the ingredients were measured and named as they existed in the Mexican stores.  Ham and Cheese Strata was easy, tasty and kids loved it so it made appearances throughout the years, well after our time in Mexico, mainly because it could be made ahead and reheated with satisfactory results.

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The story I had planned to write about the Strata was that I made it for my Mother-Daughter Book Club when Firstborn Daughter was just 7 years old.  Book club consisted of a group great friends and their daughters from my time in the Bay Area.  Our girls had all just started to read chapter books and so we started a club to promote their reading and provide a safe and comfortable environment to discuss the issues presented in the books.  Each mother/daughter team took a turn selecting a book for the month and we would meet for dinner and a craft related to the book.  While working on the craft, we would talk about the book and it's messages.  I remember so looking forward to our gatherings with that group of sweet girls and their amazing moms.  After the first year of our club meetings, I would have been hard pressed to say who got more from our sessions, the mothers or the daughters.

When it was my turn to provide book club dinner, I made a ham and cheese dish because it was such a great versatile dish for adults and kids.  It was a hit.  Nearly everyone asked for the recipe that night and I forever think fondly of our book club whenever I bake the ham and cheese strata.

But my Ham and Cheese Strata story changed on a recent trip to Seattle.  Hubby and I had dinner with my great friend Kate and her husband.  It was such a fun reunion.  They had moved to Seattle over a decade ago and I had not seen Kate in person since that time.  While we stayed in touch with our lives through email and Facebook, we had so much ground to cover in just one dinner!  Discussion came around to food and my blog and Kate asked when I was going to post the Ham and Cheese Strata.  I laughed and said I needed to write the story first, not thinking there was much of a story behind the time I shared the strata with Kate.  Kate went on to say, "I just remember that strata saved my life at a time when I was drowning."

I was baffled.  She explained that when I brought it to her just after she gave birth to her twins (she already had two other young children) she was on the verge of collapse. Her husband traveled frequently and she was alone that week with four young children including newborn twins.  Showering was not an option some days and just taking time to put food in her mouth was a struggle.  Kate said the strata was so good, and so easy to scoop out and microwave while holding a baby, she was grateful beyond belief. The casserole fed her and the kids for days.  While I didn't have twins, nor four children, I could relate to her story and that feeling of barely keeping my head above water at times when the kids were young.  I felt so honored that my little gesture of food helped Kate in a time of need.

Kate went on to tell me another story.  She said, "Your family saved me twice during that time."  Apparently, her husband was out of town when she went into labor so she called a mutual friend of ours for help.  She needed a ride to the hospital and someone to pick up her other children after school.  Minutes later, my brother showed up at her door.  Kate said she doesn't even know why or how he was there.  She had hardly spent any time with my brother.  But there he was so she wasn't about to ask questions.  She got in the car and he drove her to the hospital where she shortly after gave birth to twins.

And then Kate had yet a third story connecting my family to her and her twins.  I was babysitting her two young girls one day while she went to a doctors appointment.  Kate arrived to our house after the doctor and looked like she had seen a ghost.  She had just been told she was having twins.  Her husband was out of town, she was trying to absorb the news of adding two more babies to her brood, she needed to process it and there we were.  According to Kate, Hubby and I talked with her a bit, laughed with her about how her life was about to change, and somehow reassured her that everything was going to be okay.

I'm not saying I had never heard these stories.  But I certainly didn't remember them.  All this happened during a time in our lives that Kate and I were so overwhelmed that stories often didn't get told, or were interrupted by young people's needs.  I find that sometimes, years later, I remember little details of my life that got buried amongst the stronger memories.  Thank you Kate for remembering these stories that bind us and reminding me that sometimes even the smallest gesture can make a world of difference to a friend in need.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”  ― Philip Pullman

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Ham and Cheese Strata for Kate

butter for baking pan 1/2 pound sliced or diced ham 12-15 slices white bread 1/2 pound grated cheese (I use a combo of Gruyere and Monterrey Jack) 8 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) 2 tsp vegetable oil 1 onion, finely chopped 2-1/2 cups milk 1/2 tsp salt 1/4 tsp pepper 1/4 tsp dry mustard 1/8 tsp nutmeg

Depending on size of desired baking pan, you can make this in either two or three layers of bread.   Cover bottom of a buttered baking pan with bread slices.   Add ham and cheese and cover with another layer of bread slices.  Repeat if desired. In a pan over medium heat, fry onion in butter and oil until soft and starting to brown.  Add milk and stir in salt, pepper, mustard and nutmeg.  Heat until starting to boil and remove from heat. Let cool a few minutes and gradually stir in the beaten eggs. Pour into baking pan, evenly across all bread slices. Let stand 1 hour. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until eggs are set and top is golden brown. Cool for 15 minutes and cut into squares.

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