A delicious breakfast/brunch option that's easy to put together and prep ahead, this Italian Polenta Breakfast Casserole is loaded with flavor and makes a great dinner entree too!
I'm always looking for new breakfast ideas, especially for entertaining guests. We love having family and friends come to visit and often, they're from out-of-town so they'll spend a few nights with us. It's nice to have something warm and delicious to serve for breakfast, but it has to be something that doesn't take forever to put together. I want to spend my time enjoying the people, not fussing in the kitchen! This Italian Polenta Breakfast Casserole checks all the boxes, plus it's unique and adds a splash of pizzaz to the breakfast menu.
I got the idea for this breakfast casserole from the New York Times Cooking website. They call theirs a Cheesy Breakfast Egg and Polenta Casserole and the recipe, in addition to the polenta and eggs, includes both Fontina and Parmesan, salami and spinach. I made the recipe as written the first time but was disappointed. It was somewhat bland and the egg whites took so long to cook that the yolks were hard instead of nice and "jammy".
So I took their general idea and came up with my own version (which only slightly resembles the New York Times recipe). With a little trial and error, I figured out how to get perfect runny yolks with nicely cooked whites.
I decided to go Italian with my rendition and include an easy and delicious no-cook tomato sauce, sliced pepperoni, lots of fresh basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese both in the polenta and as a garnish or topping.
The tomato sauce topping is an uncooked take-off on my Quick and Easy Marinara. It comes together in about 3 minutes yet is bursting with fabulous Italian flavor. It also makes a great quick and easy pizza sauce or a topping for pasta.
As you might have noticed from the pictures, you can make this casserole in either a large baking pan or in individual baking dishes. It will serve 4-6, depending on how large you want the servings to be.
What is polenta?
I was telling a friend about this Italian Polenta Breakfast Casserole and she asked what polenta was. I thought some of you might have the same question.
Here are some fun facts about polenta:
- Polenta is, basically, ground cornmeal and is, in some ways, similar to grits which are popular and commonly eaten in the southern United States.
- Polenta and grits vary in that they are made from different varieties of corn.
- Polenta is made from flint corn, a variety that is grown in Italy. It holds its shape better than dent corn, which is the corn used in the United States for grits.
- Polenta has roots dating back to the 16th century in northern Italy where it was served as peasant food, almost exclusively served hot as a porridge or mush.
- These days it's become a popular item in gourmet restaurants all over the world and is used in both sweet and savory dishes.
- Polenta makes a wonderful bed for sauces and particularly pairs well with tomato sauces (as in this Italian Polenta Breakfast Casserole).
- Polenta is gluten-free and makes a delicious substitute for pasta.
- Generally, polenta takes a long time to cook, however, it also comes in a quick-cooking or instant version (which is what is used for this recipe) which can be prepared in minutes.
Where can you purchase polenta?
Polenta can be found in most larger grocery stores. I live in a very small town and it's available at my local grocery. It's often stocked in the pasta section although sometimes it's in the rice or in the international aisle with products from Italy. If you have a problem locating it, check with the management and be sure you specify instant polenta. You can also find polenta online.
Can you use cornmeal for polenta?
As stated above, true polenta is made from a specific variety of corn, which is called flint. Flint corn is an Italian heirloom variety that produces a polenta that is deep yellow and has great flavor. Cornmeal yields a different textured result but, in a pinch, you can use medium ground cornmeal as a substitute for polenta. It will need to be cooked longer than instant polenta.
Café Tips for making this Italian Polenta Breakfast Casserole
- Although I almost always use large eggs, I've found that medium work well for this Italian Polenta Breakfast Casserole, especially if I'm trying to get 6 eggs into my oval baking pan.
- I like to use fire-roasted tomatoes for this recipe. They add a wonderful depth of flavor and have a nice charred look which adds to the presentation. However, if you can't find fire-roasted tomatoes, regular canned, diced tomatoes will work fine.
- Be sure to drain the tomatoes well. You don't want a wet, soggy topping. Discard the juices or use them for another recipe.
- If you want a more tomato-y topping, double the quick tomato sauce.
- You can prep this Italian Polenta Breakfast Casserole a few hours ahead or even the evening before. Make the polenta and spread it in the baking pan (or pans, if you want individual servings. Cover the pan(s) with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Make the no-cook tomato sauce and refrigerate in a storage container. In the morning or when you're ready to put it together, just add the tomato sauce and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and add the eggs and pepperoni as indicated in the recipe. Return the pan to the oven and bake for the remaining time.
- Use a medium-large pot for cooking the polenta and reduce the heat to a simmer once it starts to boil to avoid a splatter mess on your stove.
- You can use a large ceramic baking dish, a braiser pan or a 9x13-inch cake pan for this recipe. I love my white Cordon Bleu Oval Baking Dish when I'm making this for a crowd.
- These individual Au Gratin Baking Dishes are wonderful when it's just Scott and me or when I want to be a little fancy and give each guest their own serving.
If you enjoyed this recipe, please come back and leave a star rating and review! It’s so helpful to other readers to hear other’s results and ideas for variations.
- 14 ½- ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes well-drained
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- ½ teaspoon garlic salt
- 3 ½ cups low sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup quick-cooking polenta
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup parmesan cheese plus more for garnish
- 3 ounces thinly sliced pepperoni We really like Boarshead, you could also use soppressata
- 6 medium eggs
- ¼ cup packed basil leaves larger ones roughly torn
- pine nuts for garnish
- parmesan cheese for garnish
Heat oven to 425˚F with a rack in the center. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan or an equivalent ceramic baking dish with cooking spray and set aside. (You can also use 4 or 6 small individual ceramic oven-safe serving dishes.)
Combine the well-drained tomatoes, olive oil, Italian seasoning and garlic salt in a medium-size bowl. Stir and set aside.
For the polenta:
Bring the 3 ½ cups chicken broth to a boil. Gradually whisk in the polenta and salt, and cook, stirring constantly until the polenta bubbles and thickens, about 3 minutes.
Stir in the milk and return to a boil. Add the butter and parmesan then remove from heat. Stir until smooth and creamy. (It will be somewhat loose.)
Spread the polenta onto the bottom of the prepared baking pan(s). Spoon the tomato sauce randomly over the top, leaving small areas of the polenta exposed. Bake for 10 minutes.
Use the back of a spoon to create 4-6 small, shallow wells in the polenta/tomatoes. Crack the eggs into the wells. Tuck the pepperoni around the eggs and into the polenta and tomato sauce, leaving about half of each slice exposed.
Return to the oven for 4-8 minutes or until eggs are done slightly under your liking. The eggs will continue to cook for a bit after the dish is removed from the oven.
Remove from the oven a let the pan stand for 8-10 minutes. Sprinkle eggs with black pepper and a bit of kosher salt. Garnish with fresh basil. Serve pine nuts and parmesan in small bowls at the table.
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