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Elegant options for a classic comfort food

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

Great French toast starts with the bread, but though almost any bread can be used in a French toast recipe, enriched breads with a loose structure, such as brioche or challah, are favorites. Still, whole-grain breads can give the toast an almost rustic appeal.

Slice the bread thick — about an inch — so there is still plenty of soft interior after the exterior of the bread crisps. Let the slices dry a little — dry bread, like a dry sponge, will absorb the custard batter more readily.

With the custard, it's all about the ratio of dairy to eggs. Recipes will vary — a few eggs can be whisked with as little as a couple of tablespoons or as much as a cup of dairy. The more dairy, the lighter the custard; less dairy means a heavier, richer custard with the egg more prominent. And though milk works fine in the custard base, nothing beats the richness and silky texture of cream.

Add other flavors to the custard with a light hand, so as not to interfere too much with the toppings. Vanilla or almond extract will add a little richness, citrus zest will brighten the flavors and a dash of liqueur will add extra personality. A little spice — cinnamon, nutmeg — is classic, and a pinch of star anise, cardamom or allspice might add an exotic note.

Leave the bread in the custard long enough to get soaked through but not completely saturated, maybe a couple of minutes on each side, depending on the bread. Then gently fry the bread in a hot skillet lightly coated with fat. Butter is traditional (and nothing beats the flavor of a little browned butter), though it can burn if not watched closely. Clarified butter or a neutral oil also works well.

And though a skillet or griddle is the most common, it is by no means the only way to cook French toast. Try cooking it in a waffle iron or even a panini press (great for stuffed French toast). If using a skillet, make sure it is heavy enough to evenly heat, and cover the toast as it's frying so it cooks evenly.

Baked French toast

French toast can also be baked. Bread slices are assembled in a baking dish with the custard poured over to soak. Baked like a casserole, the toast souffles in the oven, still crisp but much more like a bread pudding in texture.

It's a versatile dish. Bake the French toast with a light touch of spice, maybe a little vanilla or citrus zest, or play with the toppings and flavorings. Top the bread with diced fruit or berries, and add some chopped nuts, chocolate chips or a streusel topping. Add white chocolate to the custard base as a nod to white chocolate bread pudding.

For a savory take, eliminate the sugar and add diced sausage and mushrooms, onions or leeks. Add a little heat with chiles or diced peppers, and top with a grating of cheese.

Maybe the best thing about baked French toast is that virtually all the work is done ahead of time. Assemble the dish the night before to soak and refrigerate it. The next morning, remove the baking dish from the fridge as the oven heats so it can warm slightly (for even baking). Top the bread with whatever you want, then put it in the oven. In less than an hour, breakfast is ready. It's a perfect dish when you have houseguests.

Stuffed French toast

There must be a reason stuffed French toast seems to be showing up on more menus lately. Maybe because you can never have too much of a good thing. Slices of battered bread are sandwiched around a variety of fillings — jams, cream cheese, mascarpone — before frying, then plated with a wide variety of sauces, glazes and toppings.

Methods vary, but the process is fairly simple: Use thinner slices of bread and batter them as you would for classic French toast (batter on one side only if you have a particularly moist filling). Then fill the sandwich. Use a thick jam or a fruit compote, try a flavored or herbed soft cheese or even a spread (Nutella, anyone?). Spoon the filling onto one side of the sandwich, leaving enough room around the edge so the filling does not spill out as the French toast cooks. Then gently fry over moderate heat, keeping the pan covered so the sandwich cooks evenly. Voila.

And the method works great with savory fillings. Take what you have in the refrigerator and improvise — maybe a little caramelized onion, cheese, bacon and leftover dandelion greens. Served with a tart salad and a glass of wine, it makes a perfect meal to close the day.

Classic French Toast

3 eggs

1 cup heavy cream

1/2teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon sugar

1/8teaspoon cinnamon

1/8teaspoon nutmeg

6 (1-inch thick) slices bread, such as challah or brioche, somewhat stale

3 tablespoons butter, 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. Makes 4 servings.

Each of 4 servings (analyzed without powdered sugar and maple syrup): 584 calories; 14 grams protein; 44 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 40 grams fat; 22 grams saturated fat; 307 mg cholesterol; 3 grams sugar; 495 mg sodium.

The Wichita Eagle—02/16/11

Baked French Toast

2 cups heavy cream

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1 1/4 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

1/2cup flour

1/4cup light brown sugar

1 cup sliced almonds

1/4cup plus 2 tablespoons ( 3/4stick) butter, cut into 1/2-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. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Each of 12 servings: 609 calories; 11 grams protein; 66 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 35 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 166 mg cholesterol; 39 grams sugar; 286 mg sodium.

The Wichita Eagle—02/16/11

Savory Stuffed French Toast

4 slices bacon, cut crosswise into large (about 1 inch) pieces

4 tablespoons butter, divided

1 onion, halved lengthwise (with the grain) and sliced into very thin lengthwise strips

1/3cup dry white wine

3 cups chopped fresh spinach

2 teaspoons wine vinegar, more to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 eggs

1 cup milk

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

8 ( 1/2-inch thick) slices sourdough bread

4 teaspoons whole-grain Dijon mustard, or as desired

1/2lb. thinly sliced Gruyere cheese

In a large skillet, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp, about 10 minutes. Drain the bacon (discard or save the fat for another use) and set aside.

In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften and start to brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Add the white wine and continue to stir, scraping any flavoring from the bottom of the pan.

When the wine is almost completely absorbed, stir in the spinach and cook just until they start to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vinegar, then taste, and season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and several grinds of black pepper. Stir in the bacon bits, then taste again and adjust the seasoning or vinegar if necessary.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk, along with the Parmesan cheese. Whisk in a pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper to season the egg wash. Place the egg wash in a large shallow baking dish or pie plate and set aside.

Soak the bread slices in the egg wash until just soaked on each side, about 2 minutes per side. Gently spread one-half teaspoon mustard over the one side of each of 4 slices. Onto the other 4 slices, divide the sliced Gruyere, then top with the onion and spinach mixture. Sprinkle over the bacon bits, then press the remaining slices of bread (mustard on the inside) onto layered cheese-onions-bacon to form a sandwich.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat until melted and hot.

Reduce the heat to low and pan-fry the sandwiches, 2 at a time, until crisp and golden and the bread is cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Cover the skillet while each piece is frying to allow the toast to fully cook and the filling to heat and melt. Adjust the heat as needed to keep each stuffed toast from burning.

Serve each piece of stuffed toast immediately or hold the finished toast in a warm oven until all of the pieces are fried. Makes 2 to 4 servings, alongside a light, tart salad or bowl of soup.

Each of 4 servings: 711 calories; 36 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 41 grams fat; 22 grams saturated fat; 270 mg cholesterol; 7 grams sugar; 1,275 mg sodium.

The Wichita Eagle—02/16/11

Mascarpone-Stuffed French Toast With Orange Compote

Orange compote:

3 cans (10.5 oz. each) mandarin oranges packed in juice

2 3/4 cups orange juice, divided, more as needed

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1/2cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

French toast:

About 2 loaves white sandwich bread (you will need 36 slices, enough for 18 sandwiches)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (about 10 oz.) mascarpone cheese

6 eggs, beaten

1/4cup plus 2 tablespoons milk

1/2teaspoon cinnamon

1/2cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

Canola oil for frying

Make orange compote: Drain the canned mandarin oranges, reserving the juice; you should have 1 1/2 cups reserved juice (if you are short, make up the difference with additional orange juice).

In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the canned oranges, reserved mandarin juice, 2 1/2 cups orange juice, ginger and sugar over high heat. Bring the mixture to a strong simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until the compote is reduced to sauce consistency, about 40 minutes. As the compote reduces, the color will deepen to a rich apricot shade.

When the compote is almost reduced, in a small bowl combine the remaining one-fourth cup orange juice with the cornstarch, whisking to thoroughly combine and form a slurry.

Add the slurry into the reduced compote, stirring until the compote thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. This makes about 1 1/2 cups compote. You might not use all of the compote for the remainder of the recipe; to store, cool the compote then cover and refrigerate until needed. The compote will keep for about a week, refrigerated. Gently warm in a saucepan before serving.

Make French toast: Use a 2 1/2-inch round cookie cutter to cut through the center of each slice to form a round. Spread 1 tablespoon mascarpone over each of half of the rounds, then cover with a remaining round of bread. Repeat, forming 18 sandwiches.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, cinnamon and sugar to form a batter. Heat a large flat skillet over medium heat. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil to the pan (enough to form a thin film), heating until the oil is hot.

Dunk a sandwich quickly into the batter, coating on all sides. Place the sandwich in the skillet and fry until golden and crisp on both sides, about 1 minute per side.

Repeat with the remaining sandwiches until all are fried, holding the fried sandwiches in a warm place.

To serve, place 3 warm sandwiches on each plate, topping with a spoonful of compote. Serve immediately. Makes 6 to 9 servings.

Adapted from the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix.

Each of 9 servings: 538 calories; 13 grams protein; 54 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 31 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 212 mg. cholesterol; 29 grams sugar; 425 mg. sodium.

The Wichita Eagle—02/16/11

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