We were finishing plates of Tower Cafe’s oven-baked French toast – one of its most in-demand dishes – 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.
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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. However, someone figured out it can be resuscitated by dipping it into an egg-milk batter and frying it. It also happens that day-old or 2-day-old bread is still preferred for French toast because it stands up to the wet batter, called “custard,” whereas fresh bread can get over-saturated 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.
The experimental phase involved much hunting and gathering and hours in the kitchen. Ingredients were many, measurements and ratios were tested, concepts were tried and abandoned. At day’s end, the aroma of browned butter permeated the house so thoroughly that the windows and doors had to be opened. Along the way I learned a lot.
The French toast template is simple in concept: Soak bread in a custard of egg and milk, then sauté it. However, its real motto is: “Anything goes.” Yes, you can cook French toast on the stove top, but also in the oven as a casserole, in a toaster (yep!), in a toaster oven, in a microwave oven, 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 right bread is essential, something substantial but not too heavy, one that will crisp up around the edges when cooked and won’t resemble a brick when plated. Recipe options are many, but some seemed odd: gingerbread, banana bread, angel food cake, pound cake, bagel, waffle and glazed doughnut. Others were more mainstream: cinnamon-raisin bread, challah, brioche, marbled rye, panettone, sourdough and ordinary white sandwich bread.
French toast dates to ancient Rome and has been on the menus of many cultures, under various names.
I consulted with master baker Joe Artim, whose Grateful Bread artisan bakery in Loehmann’s Plaza 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 (available at Grateful Bread until Christmas) 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.
This is where ingredients and measurements in so many recipes are all over the place. 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.
Some recipes called for 6 eggs and 1 1/2 cups of liquid. Others asked for 4 eggs and 2/3 cup of liquid, 4 eggs-1/4 cup, 2 eggs-2/3 cup, 3 eggs-3/4 cup and so on. In every case, the liquids were either milk (whole or low-fat) or half-and-half, light cream, light whipping cream, whipping cream, heavy cream or heavy whipping cream, or combinations of two. The difference is in the fat contents.
I ended up with three whole eggs and one egg yolk, to tone down the “eggy” taste in the whites and make a richer custard. As for liquid, nobody had mentioned buttermilk, so that went in for tang and texture, along with half-and-half.
Also: orange zest (grated orange peel), Grand Marnier orange-flavored liqueur, vanilla extract, kosher salt, fresh-ground black pepper and a couple of dashes of Frank’s Original RedHot sauce – optional, but a little heat tempers the sweet, though sugar was left out.
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.
I went with coarsely chopped oven-toasted pecans, with a side of maple syrup-infused whipped cream dusted with finely ground cayenne pepper.
Many incarnations of French toast came out of my kitchen experiment – some really good and some, uh, not so much. Here are two options to the master recipe:
Omit the Grand Marnier and pecans, but keep the orange zest. Substitute 1/3 cup of Frangelica hazelnut liqueur and use coarsely chopped roasted hazelnuts.
Or, keep the orange zest but omit any liqueur, and use 1/2 cup of ginger juice instead. The invigorating elixir is sold at Whole Foods markets, or order it from the Ginger People at www.gingerpeople.com. Top the French toast with crystallized ginger.
Al’s French toast
Makes 8 slices
French toast can be dessertlike and way too sweet. To avoid that, sugar is not part of this recipe, nor is a big pour of maple syrup on top of the toast. Instead, maple syrup-infused whipped cream – lightly dusted with cayenne pepper (optional) – is served on the side for dipping. Also: The flavor of heavily textured Kerrygold Irish butter from grass-fed cows adds depth and richness to the dish. Careful: It has a very low smoke point.
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup real maple syrup
Finely ground cayenne pepper
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 from Grateful Bread bakery
A plate of oven-toasted coarsely chopped pecans
Fresh fruit for garnish
To make the cream: Whip the cream with an electric mixer until peaks are stiff. Add maple syrup and whip 5 more seconds. Serve 2 heaping tablespoons to the plated French toast, on the side – not on top. Otherwise, the hot toast will melt the whipped cream into a liquid mess. One dash of cayenne on top of the whipped cream should do it (optional).
To make French the toast: 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. Then lay the slices on top of the plated 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 pecan plate and place them nut-side down into 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 side of the bread as possible. Wipe the skillet or griddle with a paper towel in between cooking the 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 a mound of maple syrup-infused whipped cream on the side. Garnish with raspberries, blueberries or any other fruit, and/or orange zest.
Parmesan French toast
Prep time: 2 minutes
Cook time: 4 minutes
A savory take on the classic French toast with a golden, cheesy crust, one the table in 5 minutes. And far less calories than the usual French toast, drowning in maple syrup or melting butter. Recipe from Nagi of RecipeTin Eats. She offers these tips: “I made this recipe with plain white sandwich bread, but you can make it with any bread you want – French stick, sourdough or brioche would especially be great.
“Use slightly stale bread if you can, that way the bread does not absorb too much of the egg mixture (which can make it soggy on the inside).”
1 tablespoon butter
3 large eggs (or 4 small eggs)
1/2 cup milk (or cream)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley (optional)
Pinch of salt
4 slices slightly stale bread
Place butter in large pan over high heat.
Lightly whisk eggs, milk, Parmesan, parsley, salt and pepper.
Dredge bread into egg mixture, shake off excess, then place into pan. If your pan is large enough, cook all 4 pieces at the same time.
Scrape any remaining cheese at the bottom to the egg mixture bowl onto the bread in the pan (why waste it?).
Cook each side until golden – 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately.