Once as a child of perhaps 7, and fancying myself a creative cook, I took a bowl of cooked peas and mixed in a heaping half cup of mustard, stirring vigorously.
My reasoning was that since I loved peas and I loved mustard, separately, together they must be dynamite!
One taste, sadly, cured me of my delusion.
But I suspect that Gina O'Hare's childhood cooking experiments fared much better because as an adult she seldom relies on cookbooks and delights in experimenting.
"I have always liked to cook - and adapt - sometimes to my family's chagrin!" O'Hare admits with a big smile.
She says her creative streak is honestly acquired.
"My dad was in the service, so we lived all over - Germany, Japan, etcetera. And my mom and dad both liked to try new things," inspired by the exotic cuisine surrounding them at any given posting.
"My husband will say I converted him from a meat and potatoes man," although, she hastens to add, "he still likes meat and potatoes too."
Today's Cook's Corner recipe is one that I suspect many readers will want to try the next time they have weekend house guests, or just want to pamper their loved ones a bit.
It is O'Hare's original French toast brunch squares, which she variously describes as a French toast strata, or egg dish.
"The recipe kind of started as a recipe in the family cookbook," an offering from one of her aunts.
But O'Hare transformed it into something almost entirely new.
"I changed it to Hawaiian bread, instead of white bread, and added the cream cheese and peaches. And she didn't put syrup in her egg mixture and I do."
The result is a perfectly balanced mixture of flavors. It's not too eggy, not overly rich, yet the cream cheese-peach combination is inspired.
The recipe, as listed on this page, calls for canned peaches since it's April and not late August. And the texture of canned works fine. But don't feel the need to adhere to it.
"I've made it with fresh peaches, mandarin oranges, or whatever's in season. Sometimes berries. Whatever strikes my fancy."
The secret ingredients, which add the perfect finishing touch, are her three-spice combination of nutmeg, cloves and allspice. O'Hare calls these optional, but after having tasted a sample, I would not alter the recipe one iota. Include all three.
O'Hare, a Bowling Green mom of daughters 11 and 9, who works in the dental office of Dr. Todd Stoner, is another of these busy women who still manage to pack a few more activities in. There are her two bunco groups and a slew of activities at her church, Dayspring, including involvement in the seasonal dramatic performances and chauffeuring her offspring to rehearsals for the recent Easter drama.
"Typically, I make it (the strata) the night before. Then you can throw it in the oven in the morning. 'Cause usually, I make it with family around and don't want to be scurrying around when all the visitors are on hand."
Preparation time is 20 to 25 minutes, she estimated.
But the batch she made for the Cook's Corner photographer "I made at 6:30 this morning" before rushing off to work.
Besides extended family she's prepared the French toast brunch squares for co-workers and for folks at church.
"Quite often, if I'm asked to make something for a breakfast at church, I'll make this. Sometimes in a larger amount, too."
O'Hare loves kitchen whimsy.
"My dad was one of nine children and my grandmother, a wonderful cook, was German. With 49 grandchildren, somebody would always ask her 'What are you making?'" when they encountered her at the stove.
"Frostarches" was inevitably the reply.
"It meant 'whatever!'" O'Hare translates. And the same reply was offered, breakfast, lunch or dinner, as the busy matriarch's stock response.
"It was passed on to my husband and his siblings," and now O'Hare even hears her own daughters talking about "frostarches."
It's clearly become a family tradition, just like the French toast squares.
French toast brunch squares
1 16-oz. loaf Hawaiian Sweet Bread
6 eggs - large
2 cup milk
½ cup maple syrup
2 teas. vanilla
1 ½ teas. cinnamon
¼ teas. each nutmeg, cloves, allspice (optional)
1 can peaches, drained
4 oz. cream cheese block - cut into small pieces
Slice Hawaiian Bread into 1 ½ inch squares and layer in greased 9-by-13 baking dish.
In medium bowl beat eggs slightly; add milk, syrup, vanilla and spices. Mix well and set aside.
Cut drained peaches into smaller pieces and layer on top of bread. Cut cream cheese into small pieces and layer over bread/peaches. Pour egg mixture evenly over bread.
Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.
Bake uncovered @ 325 degrees for 1 hour, or until golden brown. Slice into squares and serve with syrup.
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