Wednesday, January 30, 2013

7 Years of Missing Wendy

http://images.betterworldbooks.com/015/Old-Money-Wasserstein-Wendy-9780151009367.jpg
"I like him.  He knows when to laugh."

These were the first words Wendy Wasserstein ever spoke to me.  Or rather, about me, I should say.  We had just finished the first day of a week-long workshop of her play Old Money at Lincoln Center in May of 2000, in preparation for the upcoming production that would go into rehearsals in October of the same year.  The ever-kind Mark Brokaw had asked me to assist him on the production, and invited me to sit in on the workshop, and at the end of the first day, after the actors left and I lingered, hoping I'd be allowed to stay and hear how Wendy and Mark talked about what they'd learn from having heard the play, Wendy gestured to me and said those words.  "I like him," she giggled, in that endearing way that made you feel included.  "He knows when to laugh."

The First Laugh

Knowing when to laugh was a matter of great import to Wendy.  When I worked for her over the course of the next few years, the first first laugh was something she'd talk about.  For her, the first laugh was to a comedy what the first song was to a musical - if it didn't come early enough and wasn't pitch-perfect, you'd lose the chance to introduce your audience to the piece.

After Old Money opened, Wendy asked me to type for her.  I was her amanuensis, I guess, although I only learned that word recently, in the context of Milton, who was blind when he "wrote" Paradise Lost.  The poem was transcribed by his daughters, to whom he recited it in its entirety.  I imagine them furiously scribbling down his lines of perfect iambic pentameter, secretly bemoaning their cruel lot in life to each other later.  "If only we weren't the daughters of a brilliant blind poet," Anne Milton, the elder, would complain to Mary, the younger.  "We could go out on Saturday nights like the rest of the Puritan girls.  But instead we're stuck home scribbling away.  And don't even get me started on my ink-stained fingers.  Who's ever going to want to slip a ring on one of these?"

The one on the left looks especially bored to me - she's totally thinking "Dad's blind, so he can't see me rolling my eyes at him." Milton also had a third daughter, standing in the back, but she's rarely mentioned so she must've been boring.


A Life In The Theater

I'm not sure exactly what I'd be doing today if I hadn't met Wendy.  Unlike many of my peers, I live on the money I make directing and writing.  In my twenties, when the income I made from directing was the meagerest of trickles, working for Wendy was the only way I could afford to pay my rent and buy my groceries and go out dancing.  In addition, my first professional directing job was at Theater J in Washington, D.C. - two one-acts Wendy had written and given to the little theater to produce if and only if I got to direct them.  The first was called Welcome To My Rash, a piece that's almost unbearably painful for me to look at now, about a sick, middle-aged writer struggling with her illness and loneliness.  The second was a one-act version of Third, which would grow up and become Wendy's last full-length play.

I am not resilient the way many of my friends are, and I think working a day-job would've broken me.  But I didn't need a day-job, because I had Wendy.  When I would kvetch to her about how unfair it was that young directors with trust funds could stay in New York and assist for free while I had to go gallivanting around the country directing at colleges, she would tell me that she was my trust fund, and I would remember how lucky I was to be able to support myself in a job that paid well, didn't require early mornings, and allowed me to learn about my field.

Writing

http://belatednerd.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/FF-cosmic-rays.jpgUp until and including the time that I worked for Wendy, I never wanted to write.  I know this, because I didn't write anything, and I'm someone who believes that people do what they want to do.  I haven't actually parsed through the cause-and-effect of losing Wendy and starting to write.  Was it something that would've happened if she hadn't passed away, because my proximity to her inspired it, like the Fantastic Four, who developed their superpowers after being exposed to cosmic rays (not to be confused, of course, with the gamma rays that turned Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk)?

One of the first things I ever wrote was a play about a young director and the established writer he works for, titled WORK.  I've been hacking away at it for years (click here to go to my website and download the sample).  I have no idea if the play will ever have any life, but I know that writing it helped me tremendously as I struggled with Wendy's loss the ache of missing her.  So maybe losing Wendy was the cause, and writing the effect.  I am positive that I'd never have had the fortitude to write my young adult novel, ONE MAN GUY, if it hadn't been for the years I spent at Wendy's side.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/97/Anton_P_Chekhov.jpg/150px-Anton_P_Chekhov.jpgOr sometimes I think, Wendy died so young, and with so many things she still wanted to write, that I started writing to try to fill the void her absence created.  Chekhov, after all, wrote hundreds of short stories and 5 brilliant plays before he died at the age of 44.  Sometimes, when I want to depress myself, I think about all the work he would've made if he had lived to be 50, or 60 or 70.  It's enough reason for everyone to pick up a pen and start writing their version of funny, sad, heart-breaking characters on a Russian estate.

Closer Than Ever

Writing makes me feel close to Wendy.  Unlike directing, with which I've had mentors galore, Wendy is the only one of two writers I've ever really been close to in that way, and so the act of it reminds me of her.  Writing my play about her, this blog, my young adult novel - every time I sit down at the keyboard, I hear her voice, and most of the time, it's making me laugh.  The rest of the time, it's giving me advice, which is inevitably practical.  When she came to see my production of The Seagull, she told me how much the character of Trigorin spoke to her, in his obsession with his writing, and how he (and Chekhov) were clearly so interested in the craft of the art.  Wendy took great pride in that, in her own work.  And I know that some people feel her plays are a little old-fashioned, and not edgy enough, or too nice, and until I get to direct one again and prove those people wrong, I hope we can all agree that they are, at least, written by someone who brings great craft to her field.



Pastrami and Cheesecake





http://students.cis.uab.edu/byulyou/cd2.jpg


October 18th was Wendy's birthday.  We had plans to lunch together on the day that neither one of us knew would be her last birthday, in 2005.  We were supposed to meet at the little writing studio she kept on 60th St (in the same building where Rafael was living when I met him, and if you think that wasn't Wendy nudging me along from beyond, you gravely underestimate her).  Wendy wasn't feeling well enough, however, to leave her apartment, so I went to the Carnegie Deli and picked up pastrami sandwiches and cheesecake, one of our perennial favorites.

She was in bed, where I served her the delicious fare.  She picked at her sandwich and didn't even touch the cheesecake.  If I weren't in such deep denial about her medical state, this would've been a clear sign that something was wrong.  I ate my portion with gusto, blabbering on about boys and work.

I try to do something that would honor Wendy ever January 30th.  Before her niece Samantha moved out West, we'd sometimes meet for a cocktail at Cafe des Artistes, which like Wendy, is no longer with us.  The first anniversary of Wendy's death, I went to see Sarah Ruhl's stunningly beautiful play The Clean House at Lincoln Center, in the same theater where Old Money had happened years before.  I wept through most of The Clean House and left the theater knowing that I would direct the play one day (which I got to do at Syracuse Stage two years ago, one of my finest productions).

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_vEjTRGZm0qk/RzdX5OHxYEI/AAAAAAAAASg/tMVFPXz7-bE/s320/strawberry+cheesecake.jpghttp://1.bp.blogspot.com/-VGTXaQTkKWY/Tf-hD8_xxiI/AAAAAAAAFP0/NT1q41U6tik/s1600/carnegie-deli-pastrami-michele-roohani.jpgBut the one thing I always do January 30th is go to the Carnegie and order a pastrami sandwich and a slice of cheesecake.  I am passed the age where I can finish both those magnificent servings by myself, but I still do it, knowing I'll have leftovers for another meal.  And so I invite you to partake of this tradition, wherever you are today.  Order some pastrami or a slice of cheesecake, and spend a moment thinking about Wendy, and how lucky those of us who knew her were to have known her, and how lucky all of us are to have her work.  





 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dinner For Two

"You don't know how to cook a chicken?" 
Marty to Janie, Isn't It Romantic, by Wendy Wasserstein
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The Best Chicken You’ll Ever Have Ever.  Ever 

This is the actual picture of the actual meal that I made in this post.  I'm getting better about photographing food.  Like with most things, it's all about the light. 
 
I know I’ve been posting about food lately.  I think it’s easier because every day I basically make something that I want to share with the world.  It’s also easier writing because it doesn’t require me to reveal myself.  Do with that what you will.  Or Twelfth Night.   Which is the day I’ve starting writing this post, coincidentally, although who knows when it’ll actually go up. 

All of this is my way of saying – rest assured, I’ll write about personal gay marriage stuff soon.  But now I’m writing about fowl.  

I had this meal for Rafael the day after he returned from his holiday trip to Mexico.  I didn’t go with him because the ticket was over a grand and also because I think gay couples split for the holidays more than straight couples do.  He got back on the 3rd, and then on the 4th had to head out to Passaic so that he could wake up early and check a shipment coming in.  If it sounds like I don’t really know what I’m writing about, it’s because I don’t.

Exemplary Fiancé

When he came back, I thought it would be nice to greet him some food because when I’ve been out all day, I cherish the idea of staying in for dinner.  I know I’m making myself sound like a simply exemplary fiancé.  As I’m sure none of you need persuading, being my other is in many ways not easy, but the point of this blog isn’t to reveal my various short-comings to you: it’s to make my life sound fabulous so that you envy it.  In the food department, I imagine I’m a joy to be with.

Here’s the simple dinner for two I whipped up tonight:

Roasted Salt Chicken
Blanched Apple Cider Kale (2 bunches)
Savory Sweet Potatoes (4)

Rather than give each individual recipe, I’m trying a new approach where I talk you through the process of doing it all together.  Tell me if you like it or if it’s annoying.

I started three days ago, when I went to my butcher and bought the fowl.  I go to a great, old-school butcher right behind Port Authority – Esposito’s And Sons.  I’ve been going there for over ten years, and I have never purchased a bad piece of meat there.  They only had chickens on the larger side (4.5 lbs or so).  I hadn’t made this recipe with a chicken that large before – usually I like them in the 3.5 or 4lb range, but it turned out great.

Take the chicken, then pour salt all over it.  I use kosher salt, but you can use that fine table salt, too.  Rotate the chicken to make sure you get every possible inch of surface area.  After you’ve put on more salt than you think you should, put on a little more.  Then you’re done (if you want to get technical, I think it requires around .5 lb).  Then wrap the container holding the chicken in plastic wrap, and let it sit in the fridge for 2 or 3 days.  4 days is okay too, but five days is getting dicey. 

Now we jump to today:

Turn the oven to 450 degrees, and put a roasting pan in the oven as it heats up.  Then put a pot of water to boil (remember how I hate it when people don’t tell you to do this early on?).
Peel the potatoes down and wrap them in tin foil.
Then take the chicken out of the fridge, and put either half an onion (if you want to make gravy) or half a lemon (if you’re a citrus junky) in the cavity.

When the oven reaches 450, take the roasting dish out, and put the chicken in the dish, breast side up.  The chicken should sizzle when it makes contact with the very hot roasting pan.  Put the pan back in the oven.

On a higher rack, on the sides, put the sweet potatoes.  Then close the oven and set the timer to 55 minutes for a chicken 4.5lbs (50 minutes for 4lb, 45 for 3.5lb).

As the chicken is cooking, remove the kale from its stalks.  Greens come in two varieties – non-assertive greens, such as spinach (which can be eaten raw and don’t need to be de-stalked) and assertive greens, such as kale or collard greens, which need to be de-stalked and cooked before eaten (yes, I know some of you eat kale raw, but that’s gross).  


 I've prepared a video to show you how to do this, but blogger keeps on giving me an error when I try to upload it, so I put it on youtube instead.  It's 28 seconds long.

http://youtu.be/Jb7Wn1SjTso

a video of me de-stemming kale

Once your kale is de-stalked, chop it up roughly. 
When the water comes to a boil, throw in the kale.  It should get nice and vivid green.  After around three minutes, use a colander to drain the kale in your sink.  The kale will keep cooking, so if it’s a little rawer than you usually take it, don’t worry.  Lots of recipes have you cook the kale longer, usually 8-10 minutes, but I think this is crazy.

After 55 minutes of roasting (or 50, or 45, depending on the size of your bird), take it out and flip it over, then put it in the oven for another ten.

You can also take the sweet potatoes out – try one.  If it’s cooked-through, then you’re all good.  If it's still hard in the middle, toss them back in the oven for another ten minutes.  Once they’re done, open them up (carefully – they’ll be steaming) and cut them into six or eight pieces and put them in a large bowl.

After you’ve flipped the bird, take it back out of the oven and flip it back so it's to breast-side up, and let it cook for another few minutes.

A Wonderful Dilemma

Once the bird is done – you’re faced with a wonderful dilemma – what to do with all of that beautiful fat you’ve rendered?  If you stuffed an onion into the cavity, toss that onion into a blender along with the rendered fat, and blend it up into the most delicious chicken gravy you’ll ever try.

If you went the lemon route, don’t worry – there’s still hope for you.  Pour half of the rendered fat into the bowl with the potatoes, and toss the kale in the remaining half.  If you used the fat to make the gravy, you can use some butter with the potatoes and some olive oil for the kale.  You can also throw whatever else you like in with the potatoes – Rafa and I used some chili powder tonight and a wee bit o' pepper.  Some people like brown sugar or some other sweetener, but I think the sweet potatoes are so delish they don’t really need it.  Then finish up the kale with a sprinkle of apple cider vinegar.

The chicken has rested sufficiently, and you can serve all of them together.  I’m going to include the same picture from the beginning of the post because I think the food looks so luscious.  Serve with a strong white, a dry rose, or a light red.  


The other things that’s nice about this recipe is that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have leftovers (unless you and dining companion are real pigs[MB1] ).  I always think that’s nice because it’s not like we can cook like this every night, so if you’re going through the effort, make it worth your while.


 [MB1]I usually don’t have left overs.  But tonight, with that big bird, I did.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Better Than Chocolate

https://mail-attachment.googleusercontent.com/attachment/u/0/?ui=2&ik=991bfeed8b&view=att&th=13c4a301a31cf47a&attid=0.1&disp=inline&safe=1&zw&saduie=AG9B_P9wwFHTMkq3jpx_1l18ywlq&sadet=1358737725132&sads=KSEb2kFMCbx1DGKzGnveJrHDL4o&sadssc=1
The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, with snow
I'm not exactly sure how to write about the retreat that my PARADISE LOST company took up to the O'Neill Theater Center - it exceeded even my wildest expectations, both in terms of productivity and fun.  When we met today in New York to work on Book V, the members of the company who were unable to join us on the retreat asked me to talk about how it went, and the first thing I did was realte the menu.  This was it:


PARADISE LOST
O’Neill Retreat

MENU


Thursday, January 17


Lunch

Dinner

Appetizer: Guacamole & Corn Chips
Entrée: Tacos  (choice of Pork or Beans, with accoutrements)
Dessert: Dark chocolate shredded over blueberries on a bed of Greek yogurt


Friday, January 18


Breakfast
Strata with Spinach, Gruyère and spicy sausage (vegetarian available)
Coffee or Tea

Lunch
Sandwich spread
(cold cuts, cheese, & condiments on whole wheat bread w/pickles)

Dinner
Appetizer: Arugula & Romaine salad with apples, goat cheese, & toasted walnuts
Entrée: Roast chicken breast, broccoli rabe, & wheat berries
Dessert: Strawberries drizzled with a balsamic reduction over vanilla ice cream


Saturday, January 19

Breakfast
Coffee or Tea

Lunch
Sandwich spread
(cold cuts, cheese, & condiments on whole wheat bread)

I have to give props here to Chris Grabowski, director and cook extraordinaire, who accepted my invitation to join us a week before we left, and who prepared both dinners (with help from company members).  

Those of you who have been following my blog might recognize some of the recipes - especially the tofu scramble and the lentils.  When cooking for large groups, it's good to throw a few things in that you're uber-familiar with.  I'm all for leaving the comfort zone, but in that kind of situation, one recipe goes astray and there you are with a company of hungry actors and that's not a pretty thing.

A Group Dessert That'll Wow 'em

The biggest surprise for me, recipe-wise, was how big of a hit the second dessert was, which I'm titling BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE because that's what the company kept insisting.  It's easy to make, but I'm going to share with you a few tips to take this simple, delicious dessert and catapult it into extraordinary.

BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE: 
Vanilla Ice Cream with Strawberries, Swimming in Balsamic Reduction 

(These portions served 14 actors just right.  It can obviously be made on a much smaller scale).

3 gallons really high quality Vanilla Ice Cream
1 quart strawberries
1 bottle good balsamic vinegar

Notes on Ingredients:

Let's start with the ice cream.  When a recipe is this simple, you have to splurge for the good stuff.  It doesn't have to be fancy (I used Breyers).  The ingredients should basically read cream, sugar and vanilla.  Breyers also has milk and tara gum, a thickening agent that probably isn't going to kill you.  If the ice cream has any ingredients you can't pronounce, don't get it.

Strawberries are only in season in the northeast in the summer, but the store had some delicious ones from California, and I swallowed my green-guilt and bought them.  Berries are usually interchangeable in simple desserts, but with the balsamic vinegar, strawberries' sweetness is key.

First, pluck the heads off the strawberries.  Some people cut them off, but I think you lose some good strawberry that way.  Next, and this is very important, soak the strawberries in cold water.  If you really want to gross yourself out, do this in a transparent glass bowl, and you'll see all the seeds and dirt they release.  After fifteen minutes (or ten, or twenty - who really cares), rinse them out and soak them again.  I got this tricky from Mother Barakiva, and it does wonder for their taste.  After they're soaked, cut them in half.

Finally, buy yourself a good bottle of balsamic vinegar.  You're going to be boiling it down, so don't go crazy, but again, don't buy bottom shelf or you'll regret it.  Look for a seal from the Consortium for the Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (CABM). A burgundy-colored seal (you'll find it on the neck band of the bottle) means your product is authentic.

If you've got a dish large enough to hold all the ice cream, or if you're using a few dishes, put them all in the freezer - that'll keep the ice cream colder longer.

INSTRUCTIONS:

1)  Pour the bottle into a sauce pan bring to a boil, drop down to a simmer, and reduce by 50%.  That's all a balsamic reduction is - vinegar that has been boiled down.   How do I know when it's reduced by 50%, Michael?  Well, this is a very good question, reader.  Until the people at Calphalon figure out how to include measurement notches inside of their pots (this doesn't seem like it would be so difficult to me, but I've never seen it, so what do I know?), this is what you do: get a large Pyrex measuring cup, and after it's been boiling for around 10 minutes, pour the liquid in the cup and compare it to the bottle's capacity.  Warning: at a certain point, the reducing vinegar will give off noxious fumes and you'll feel like you're the victim of chemical warfare.  That means you're doing it right.  A few minutes of those and you'll have your reward.

http://gorgeinthegorge.com/images/Full-Page/815.jpg2)  Put the ice cream into the serving dish(es).

3)  Put the halved strawberries on top of the ice cream.

4)  Pour the reduced balsamic vinegar (still hot) on all of it.

5)  Serve immediately.

My company went crazy for this.  Most of them couldn't believe that the dessert didn't have any chocolate.  I'd never thought about it, but the richness and tartness of the reduced vinegar in that quantity did imitate dark chocolate's punch.  The product is exquisite - the richness of the ice cream creating a base of which the sweet strawberries and sweet/tart vinegar can dance.

We also got a lot of work done on the retreat, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that.  But honestly, writing about how Lucifer impregnated Sin after she sprung out of his head, during a counsel he organized to try to overthrow God, and how she gave birth to Death, and the amazing metaphorical significance of all of that, just doesn't seem as interesting to me as delicious and simple-to-make desserts for groups.







Monday, January 14, 2013

Feeding A Colony Of Artists

Breakfast, Anyone?

A bunch of us working.  I like the celestial light.
This Thursday, Friday and Saturday this merry gang of Original Sinners:

Franca Sofia Barchiesi               
Paul Bernardo
Lauren Coppola
+Estefania Fadul
+Lindsey Gates
Chris Grabowski
Brough Hansen
Maggie Lacey
Liz McLaughlin
Phil Mills
Rahaleh Nassri
+Eric Sutton
+Alex Trow
+Steven Wooley

will be going up to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

 http://www.theoneill.org/

on an artists' retreat so we can work on the first four books of PARADISE LOST

I am not including "play board games" on the schedule, although that's what I'm planning we do every night after dinner until midnight or so.


OUT OF HELL

I think we're going to call these books, the first of three installments, OUT OF HELL, as it chronicles Satan's journey out of Hell and to Paradise.  It turns out that planning the retreat is a whole lotta fun as well - making up the schedule, creating the room assignments, figuring out transportation.

And of course, putting together the menus.

Although the idea of rehearsing for twenty hours in a three-day period and making six meals for a group of 14 is appealing, I decided to call in some help on this one.  Enter Chris Grabowski, director and cook extraordinaire, who was also my directing mentor at Vassar College, when I was a wee little thing.

LUNCH, THE MIDDLE CHILD

The first menu decision Chris and I made was to let lunch be a delicious but simple array of cold cuts from which the company could assemble sandwiches.  In this country, lunch is the neglected middle child of meals, and for reasons of simplicity, I wasn't going to change that (even though I'm a middle child, and there's a great reading of Paradise Lost in which Satan is the middle child, sandwiched between Jesus and Man.  And when I say "a great reading," I clearly mean one I made up myself last week).  To dazzle lunch up a bit, because even a middle child deserves some bling, I'm going to make the mayo from scratch, a not very hard thing to do if you've got a food processor, and it's hella delicious.  I use this recipe from the NY Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/recipes/12459/Mayonnaise.html

BREAKFAST IS SEXY

I asked Chris to take over the dinners, because they're harder, and also because I love making breakfast.  Breakfast is a sexy meal, and during my single days, I'd love to see what I could whip up in whatever foreign kitchen I found myself (if this hasn't been made into a reality show, it obvi should be).

My proving-to-be-invaluable assistants, Steven Wooley and Estafania Fadul, and I spent a few hours this weekend figuring out the logistics, and they've created menu books and ingredient spread sheets and lots of other things to make our lives easier.

For one breakfast, I figured I'd put my money where my mouth is (god knows I've put everything else there) and make the tofu scramble that I posted about earlier, served over quinoa.

http://michaelbarakiva.blogspot.com/2012/12/vegetarians-are-annoying-but-you-dont.html

BETWEEN QUICHE, CASSEROLE AND HEAVEN. . . 

For my second breakfast, I'm going to make a strata, an Italian breakfast casserole dish that lives somewhere in the exquisite space between quiche, casserole and heaven.  I made this dish for the getting-to-know-you brunch I hosted for my FARRAGUT NORTH cast a few weeks before we started rehearsal.  Clearly it did the trick - link to our NY Times review here.  A strata is a great way to feed lots of people well.  I'm tripling the recipe, and making one of the portions without chorizo (an ingredient I add as homage to the Mexicans I'm marrying into) so that the vegetarians can dive in.

From what I understand, what amateur food bloggers like myself are supposed to do is take a recipe I like, make marginal changes to it, and then publish it as my own.  But there are some things that are sacrosanct even to a double genocide descendant such as myself, and one of them is the cookbook that basically helped me (re-)discover my love for cooking.  It is The New Best Recipe, the cookbook from the editors of Cook's Illustrated.

THE BEST COOKBOOK IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WIDE WORLD 
 


Although the a few of the recipes are occasionally more complicated than they ought to be (the chicken parm takes like two hours to make), everything is so well researched, so clear, and so specific that it takes all the annoying guess work out of cooking and pretty much guarantees a successful product (if theater had an equivalent handbook, I guarantee you I would've committed it to memory by now).  I especially recommend it for beginning cooks, because I find its meticulousness as I wander into unknown territory especially comforting.  When I made this strata the first time for my FARRAGUT NORTH cast (another great review here from some local NJ rag) I had never eaten, let alone made a strata.  But I followed the good book, and it did not lead me astray.

Here's the recipe.  Stay tuned for updates from our retreat, pictures of the food we make, and Chris's dinner recipes!

STRATA RECIPE


Breakfast Strata with Spinach and Gruyere
SERVES 6
To weight down the assembled strata, use two 1 pound
boxes of brown or powdered sugar, laid side by side over
the plastic-covered surface. To double this recipe or the
variation that follows, use a 13 by 9 inch baking dish
greased with 1.5 tablespoons butter and increase the baking
times as suggested in each recipe.

Breakfast Strata

8-10 (1/2-inch-thick) slices supermarket French or
This is not a strata I made, but rather, the image of one I found online.
Italian bread
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 medium shallots, minced
1 (l0-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach,
thawed and squeezed dry
Salt and ground black pepper
½ cup medium-dry white wine, such as
Sauvignon Blanc
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
6 large eggs
1 ¾ cups half-and-half

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position
and heat the oven to 225 degrees. Arrange the
bread in a single layer on a large baking sheet
and bake until dry and crisp, about 40 minutes,
turning the slices over halfway through the drying time. (Alternatively, leave the slices out over night to dry.) When the bread has cooled, butter the slices on one side with 2 tablespoons of the butter; set aside.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium
nonstick skillet over medium heat. Saute the shallots  
until fragrant and translucent, about 3 minutes;
add the spinach and salt and pepper to taste
and cook, stirring occasionally, until combined,
about 2 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl; set
aside. Add the wine to the skillet, increase the heat
to medium-high, and simmer until reduced to 1/4
cup, 2 to 3 minutes; set aside.

3. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish with
the remaining 1 tablespoon butter; arrange half of
the bread slices buttered-side up in a single layer
in the dish. Sprinkle half of the spinach mixture,
then ½ cup grated cheese evenly over the bread
slices. Arrange the remaining bread slices in a single
layer over the cheese; sprinkle the remaining
spinach mixture and another 1/2 cup cheese evenly
over the bread. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl
until combined; whisk in the reduced wine, the
half-and-half, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste.
Pour the egg mixture evenly over the bread layers;
cover the surface flush with plastic wrap' weight
down (see note), and refrigerate at least 1 hour or
up to overnight.

4. Remove the dish from the refrigerator
and let stand at room temperature 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, adjust an oven rack to the middle
position and heat the oven to 325 degrees'
Uncover the strata and sprinkle the remaining
1/2 cup cheese evenly over the surface. Bake until
both the edges and the center are puffed and the
edges have pulled away slightly from the sides of
the dish, 50 to 55 minutes (or about 60 minutes
for a doubled recipe). Cool on a wire rack for
5 minutes; serve.






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