I love make-ahead dishes, especially around the holidays. Prepping a day or two ahead of the festivities and then slipping the dish in the oven when ready to serve is like giving yourself a little gift of time.

For the New Year’s celebration, I was searching for something on hand that was indulgent that we could eat for New Year’s Eve dinner or, perhaps, enjoy in the wee hours on New Year’s morning (if we stay up that late this year.)

This cheesy ham bake is festive enough for a holiday treat, but fairly simple to compose. It takes liberties with a classic French sandwich, the croque madame, turning the components into a casserole.

A quick-cooking Gruyère sauce, thickened with a little butter and flour roux, comes together in less than 10 minutes. Dijon mustard cuts the richness with a bit of tang.

Spread some sauce in a baking dish and top with thick-sliced toasted bread. I like to use an herby focaccia as the base for more flavor, but your favorite ciabatta or any thick-cut slices will work. Top that with thin slices of ham, more sauce and a sprinkling of cheese and bake for less than 20 minutes.

Slice a portion and top it with an egg fried in spicy fat.

It’s rich, so I definitely put it in the special-occasion category and recommend enjoying it with a lightly dressed green salad.

To give it a little more oomph, I took inspiration from Ali Slagle’s Spiced Bread Egg in a Hole and added white pepper and nutmeg to the fat when frying the egg. It adds another layer of flavor to this creamy dish.

If everyone is not eating at the same time, you can bake the casserole and refrigerate it. Then, when ready to eat, people can slice a portion and reheat in the toaster oven or oven before adding that freshly fried egg.

One benefit of eating the casserole a day later: A prettier plate. The creamy ham and cheese bake cuts much more cleanly after being chilled.

I prefer Gruyère with this dish, but Swiss cheese can be substituted.

Make Ahead: The cheese sauce for this casserole can be made up to 1 day in advance. Reheat it in a small saucepan over low heat, whisking constantly until creamy. The casserole, without the egg, can be assembled 3 days in advance and refrigerated. Remove it from the refrigerator while the oven is preheating and then proceed as directed.

Storage Notes: Leftover casserole can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat the casserole, or an individual portion, in a 350-degree oven or toaster oven for 15 minutes, or until bubbly. Then, top with the egg and chives.

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Ingredients

  • 1 square plain or herb-seasoned focaccia bread loaf (10 to 12 ounces total)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more as needed
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 cups (6 1/2 ounces) shredded Gruyère cheese
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground white pepper, divided, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, divided, plus more as needed
  • 8 ounces thinly sliced ham
  • 6 large eggs
  • Chopped fresh chives, for serving

Step 1

Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees.

Slice the bread in half horizontally so it is about 1/2-inch thick, then trim as needed so the two halves loosely fill a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Fill any gaps with the bread trimmings, if you like. Place the bread in the oven and toast for about 10 minutes, or until crisp.


Step 2

While the bread is toasting, in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add the flour to make a roux; cook, whisking, until the roux just starts to darken, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk, raise the heat to high and bring to a gentle boil, whisking constantly, until it begins to thicken, 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat. Whisk in the mustard, 1 cup of the cheese, 1 teaspoon of the pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of the nutmeg until well combined and smooth, about 2 minutes.


Step 3

Remove the baking dish from the oven. Transfer the toasted bread to a plate and spread 1 cup cheese sauce evenly in the baking dish. Nestle the bread into the sauce, cut side up. Top with the ham and the remaining cheese sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup cheese.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until bubbly and browned in places on top.

Remove the casserole from the oven and let cool while you fry the eggs, or until the cheese stops bubbling.


Step 4

In a large nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, melt the remaining butter and sprinkle in the remaining white pepper and nutmeg. Add the eggs, slipping them in just a few seconds apart to allow the whites to set before adding another. (This helps to prevent the eggs from sticking together.) Fry until the whites are opaque but the yolks are still soft, 2 to 3 minutes. If you fry the eggs in batches, add more butter and spices as needed.


Step 5

To serve, use a sharp knife to cut the casserole into six even pieces. Using a thin, metal spatula, transfer a section of the casserole to a plate. Top each portion with a spiced fried egg and sprinkle generously with fresh-cut chives.


Nutrition Information

Calories: 511; Total Fat: 32 g; Saturated Fat: 15 g; Cholesterol: 269 mg; Sodium: 1024 mg; Carbohydrates: 26 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 5 g; Protein: 29 g.


Recipe from recipes editor Ann Maloney

Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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