As we make our New Year’s resolutions, mine is to make more breakfast for the family.
Breakfast was always a tough one for me. I was a short order cook in college, and I formed a prejudice against the early day meal. Maybe because it was so early and painful, as I more than likely went to bed just a couple hours prior. Nevertheless, a resolution was made.
One of my favorite things growing up was my mother’s French toast. When we saw the cast iron skillet come out, we knew it was go time. My mother used Italian bread, milk, eggs, cinnamon and sugar. Of course it all came together with butter.
Incidentally, French toast has been around for 1,000 years. It has been known as Romaine Pain as its first mention was in Roman times. It also has been known in France as pain perdue which means ‘lost bread.’ It was coined French toast by an innkeeper in 18th-century Albany, New York with the last name French. It was also known as German Bread, but the French toast name had gotten more popular in World War 1. Bottom line, it has been used as a way to use day old bread and stretch the pantry.
But what makes the best French toast? Is it the bread? Is it the eggs and how much you soak them? Is it the aforementioned pan? Or what type of sugar? Are the additions like strawberries, blueberries, ice cream, whipped cream or bananas a bonus? All, yes, yes, yes, several, and yes are your answers.
You can use any bread for French toast, but know your bread. I recommend using loaf bread so you can slice it how thick you would like it. But, I have used old dinner rolls in a pinch. But after some trials, we have decided Brioche is the best. Its tight crumb allows for longer soaking without the bread falling apart. The sweetness in the bread allows it to crisp up more when frying. Challah follows the same vein, and like the brioche, it is made with egg so it really creates an egg flavor and a creamy texture. Italian bread will create a chewier toast. French bread, with its crusty crumb, will need to soak more in the egg mixture to soften it. Last but not least, is the Pullman loaf. This is what you usually buy at the store. Probably the most used, but it makes an inferior French toast. You are best to get it unsliced or make it yourself so you can cut thicker slices. If you use the pre-sliced Pullman bread, you need to barely soak it in egg mix. Too long and it will fall apart. However, when you master using Pullman, you can make quick French toast in a pinch.
The egg mix is also an important ingredient. Some recipes are heavier on milk or cream, while others add flavorings like vanilla or almond extract. I feel the KISS principal applies, keep it simple. The flavoring is in the crusting of the batter. Also, the creamier you want your French toast, the longer you soak the bread in the batter. And for a crispier finish with and even creamy center, a thick bottomed pan should be used. Mom’s cast iron skillet was perfect.
The most popular sugar on French toast is confectioners. Combined with the butter and cinnamon, it almost eliminates the need for any kind of syrup. However, syrup is a welcome addition. As I mentioned before, my mother added granulated sugar. She would put it on top of cooked side, and then flip it for a quick caramelization, then add a pat of butter and a sprinkling of some more sugar and serve. For another dimension, brown sugar or coconut sugar will suffice.
Any fruit can go on French toast. Berries seem to work the best. The burst of juice with the duo of crisp and creamy is definitely the trifecta. But compotes such as apple and peach are a welcome topping, also. And of course, my kids will never turn down a dollop of whipped cream to finish it off.
Now this brings us to stuffed French toast. This is basically a French toast sandwich. You make French toast and then spread cream cheese, fruit and/or nuts and put them together. My favorite stuffed French Toast is the Monte Cristo. It is a savory sandwich filled with turkey, ham and cheese and an optional tomato. The outside bread is soaked in batter and the sandwich is grilled like you would French toast.
Incidentally, the way you ate your French toast indicated a social class. If you ate it with the crust off, you were of the nobility as you could afford to toss off extra bread. If you were of the lesser class, you kept the crust on the bread. So when you feel like treating your family like royalty, cut off the crusts. Nah, they don’t deserve it.
Basic French Toast
4 large eggs
2/3 cup milk
½ teaspoon cinnamon(optional)
8 slices bread: stale or day old
2 teaspoons confectioner’s sugar
4 tablespoons butter.
Whisk together eggs, milk, salt, and cinnamon. Heat up tablespoon of butter for each two slices of French toast. When butter starts to foam, it is ready. Soak bread in batter and place in hot pan with butter. Cook until crisp. Turn over and repeat. Continue process until all toast is cooked. Pour excess butter from pan over toast and sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.