We were finishing plates of oven-baked French toast when someone cautioned, “You need to be careful when you eat French toast.”
“Why’s that?” someone else asked.
“Because it’s so comforting it makes you want to go back to bed,” the person said with a laugh.
We stayed awake long enough to talk about the dish, which is in season now that a chill is in the air and families gather for the holidays. French toast dates to ancient Rome and has been on the menus of many cultures, under various names. For reasons lost in the mists of culinary time, it was dubbed “French” toast in 1600s England, and arrived here via 19th century settlers.
The French call it “pain purdu” – lost (or wasted) bread. “Lost” in the sense that stale bread is usually thrown out and replaced with fresh bread. However, someone figured out it can be resuscitated by dipping it into an egg-milk batter and frying it. Day-old or 2-day-old bread is still preferred for French toast because it stands up to the wet batter, called custard, while fresh bread can get oversaturated and dissolve.
Curious, I took on a French Toast Project, hoping to push the boundaries of a breakfast classic that’s more multidimensional than pancakes and waffles. I got a few cues from, oh, 60 or so recipes, but added a few tweaks to create one that’s … well, if not unique, then different. A lot of “quick and easy” French toast recipes are out there, but who wants those? In this case, trade in the old “less is more” approach for a newer model: More is better.
Along the way I learned a lot:
Anything goes: The French toast template is simple in concept: Soak bread in a custard of egg and milk, then saute it. But you have a lot of leeway. Yes, you can cook French toast on the stove, but also in the oven as a casserole, in a toaster (yep!), in a toaster oven, in a microwave and even in the backyard over hardwood coals in a kettle cooker (messy, but the smoky flavor is interesting).
Cut it into sticks, turn it into cupcakes or muffins, or add ham and cheese for a croque monsieur. One recipe even transforms the slices into link sausage-filled roll-ups, a la pigs in blankets, while another tells how to make it into a cannoli. How about a French toast grilled-cheese sandwich?
The bread: The right bread is essential, something substantial but not too heavy, that will crisp around the edges when cooked and won’t resemble a brick when plated. I consulted with master baker Joe Artim, whose Grateful Bread artisan bakery in Sacramento, Calif., has been around for 25 years. Because sourdough is so predictable in California, we discussed alternatives.
We decided on three, cut into half-inch-thick slices. Seasonal Swedish limpa is hearty with rye and wheat flours, honey, anise and orange zest and pulp. Pugliese bread was less dense, with air pockets in the loaf and a chewier crust. French bread was also light, but with less texture than the other two. The pugliese and French were “batards,” which refers to the shape of the loaf, which is like a baguette but shorter, taller and wider. We liked the limpa for its layered flavors, but, in a close call, favored the pugliese.
The custard: Flavoring options included cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, almond or vanilla extract, sugar (white or brown, for caramelization), ricotta cheese, cream cheese, crushed pineapple, eggnog, coconut water and hot chocolate.
After trying a lot of variations, I settled on a batter with three whole eggs and one egg yolk, to tone down the “eggy” taste and make a richer custard. For liquid, I used buttermilk for tang and texture, along with half-and-half.
Toppings: Take your pick – warm maple syrup and butter, fruit of any kind, preserves, nuts, granola, cream cheese-sugar glaze, salted caramel, ice cream, whipped cream, peanut butter, raisins, shredded coconut, cranberries, toasted pine nuts or pumpkin seeds, Craisins, Nutella, chocolate chips, fried eggs and crisp bacon.
Al’s French Toast
French toast can be way too sweet. Instead of pouring on maple syrup, this uses a maple syrup-infused whipped cream lightly dusted with cayenne pepper (optional) on the side for dipping.
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup real maple syrup
Finely ground cayenne pepper (optional)
For the French toast:
3 whole eggs plus 1 egg yolk
1 heaping tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
1/4 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup Grand Marnier
Squirt or two of Frank’s Original RedHot sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A few shakes of kosher salt
A few grinds of whole peppercorns
8 slices of day-old Swedish limpa, pugliese or French bread
1/2 to 1 cup toasted, chopped pecans
Whip the cream with an electric mixer until peaks are stiff. Add maple syrup and whip 5 seconds longer. Place 2 heaping tablespoons on the side of the plate with the French toast (otherwise, the hot toast will melt it) and sprinkle with a dash of cayenne (optional).
Preheat a skillet or griddle over medium to medium-high heat (cast iron works well). Put the eggs in a big bowl, add the zest and whisk. Add the liquids, and the salt and pepper and whisk again. Pour the custard into a large glass pie plate.
Cooking two slices at a time, place the bread into the custard and let it soak 15 to 20 seconds per side. Spread the pecans on a plate, then lay each slice of soaked bread on the pecans, pressing firmly but gently. Put a big pat of butter into the pan; the butter should sizzle, but not smoke.
Moving quickly and using a spatula, carefully lift the slices one at a time from the pecans and place them nut-side down in the skillet. Cook each side 2 1/2 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy. Use the spatula to carefully turn the slices, keeping as many pecan bits on the top of the bread as possible. Wipe the skillet or griddle with a paper towel in between batches, and add fresh butter each time. Keep the French toast in a warm oven as you cook the remaining slices.
To serve, place two slices per plate with maple syrup-infused whipped cream on the side. Garnish with raspberries, blueberries or any other fruit, and/or orange zest.
Yield: 8 slices.