I admit it. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with French toast.
When I was a kid, there was a simple magic to it: The way the soaked bread would puff in the pan, the toast crisping to a rich, golden brown in the hot fat. Fresh out of the pan, the dish was topped with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, like a dusting of fresh snow. This was dessert for breakfast -- it almost felt wrong. With each bite, the crisp, almost brittle crust would give way to a tender, soft-as-a-pillow interior, subtle with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg and fragrant notes of vanilla.
As I started to cook for myself, it became a go-to recipe for its sheer ease and simplicity.
French toast remains a favorite breakfast choice. Done right, there’s an unpretentious beauty to this classic comfort food. But there is an art to French toast.
Sometimes there’s nothing as tempting as a plate of crisp, thick slices piled high on a plate with a sprinkling of sugar. But this is one dish that’s not limited to the classic presentation. Try soaking the toast overnight, then baking it as a casserole the next morning; the toast will swell like a souffle in the oven as the scent of spiced custard fills the house. Or try stuffing the bread before frying, hiding a pocket of soft cheese, maybe chocolate or even a savory filling inside. This is one dish that’s not limited to the skillet, or even the breakfast plate.
CLASSIC FRENCH TOAST
Total time: 25 minutes
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
6 (1-inch thick) slices bread, such as challah or brioche, somewhat stale
3 tablespoons butter or bacon fat, divided
Powdered sugar, as desired
Maple syrup, preferably grade B, as desired
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Whisk in the cream, then the vanilla, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour the batter into a wide, shallow baking dish.
Soak the bread slices on each side, about 2 minutes per side.
Heat a large, heavy-bottom skillet over medium heat until hot. Melt a tablespoon of butter in the hot pan, then add 2 slices of the bread. Reduce the heat and fry the slices gently on each side until the bread is crisp and golden-brown, and the inside of the bread is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Cover the pan while cooking so the bread toasts evenly and thoroughly. Remove the toast and hold on a baking sheet in a warm oven until all of the slices are toasted. Repeat with the remaining slices. Slice each piece of toast in half and plate 3 half slices on each of 4 plates. Dust each with powdered sugar, if desired, and serve with warm maple syrup.
BAKED FRENCH TOAST
Total time: 1 ½ hours, plus overnight soaking
Servings: 10 to 12
2 cups heavy cream
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
11/4 cups white chocolate chips
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 cups milk
2 eggs, beaten
3 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 (1-pound) loaf stale French or Italian bread, cut into 1-inch slices
½ cup flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 pound cherries, berries or chopped stone fruit or bananas (you can use frozen fruit; simply thaw and drain well before using)
In a medium saucepan, heat the cream and orange zest over medium heat. Place the chocolate chips in a large mixing bowl. When the cream comes to a simmer, remove the pan from the heat and pour the hot cream over the chocolate chips, whisking until the chips dissolve. Whisk three-fourths cup granulated sugar into the mixture, then the milk, eggs, egg yolks, vanilla and almond extract to form a custard base.
Place the bread slices in a single layer in 2 greased 8-inch square baking dishes and pour over the custard; the bread may need to be squeezed into the dishes to fit. Cover the bread and refrigerate the mixture for several hours, preferably overnight.
While the bread is soaking, make the streusel topping. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour with the remaining one-fourth cup granulated sugar and brown sugar, then stir in the sliced almonds. Using your fingers, mix the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is combined and resembles small peas (you may still have larger pieces of almonds; this is fine). Cover and refrigerate the mixture until needed, up to overnight.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the baking dish and streusel topping from the refrigerator to warm slightly as the oven heats.
Take the drained cherries and toss them over the bread mixture, pressing a few cherries between the bread slices. Drizzle the streusel topping over the bread and cherries.
Bake the French toast until the bread is well-puffed and the topping is golden, about 45 minutes. Check to make sure the French toast is cooked throughout.
Increase the heat to 425 degrees and continue to cook the French toast until the topping is crisp and golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately