French Toast. One of the most decadent meals one could ever hope for. It’s a divine meal for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or, yes, dinner.
Admit it. Breakfast for dinner is the best.
Day-old bread soaked in a custard mixture, cooked slowly on a skillet, and served with butter, syrup, powdered sugar, whipped cream, and, even better, fresh fruit. It’s the kind of meal that makes you want to go back to bed on a lazy weekend. I know I do.
But, is French Toast really French? Well, yes and no. No one knows the true origins of the recipe.
Dating back to the 4th or 5th Century, Apicius is credited as having the earliest recipe for stale bread soaked in milk, but not eggs, and served with honey.It was named “aliter dulcia” – another sweet dish.
“Another sweet dish: Break fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces which soak in milk. Fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.” –Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling
There are also references to the recipe in a 14th Century German recipe “Arme Ritter” – poor knights. In the 15th Century, English recipes for “pain perdu” (French) – Lost/wasted bread (a reference to bread that has gone stale). A similar dish, “suppe dorate” – guilded snippets – was popular in England during the Middle Ages, although the English might have learned it from the Normans (the French who invaded England in 1066) , who had a dish called “tostees dorees” – guilded bread.
“Take slices of white bread, trimmed so that they have no crusts; make these slices square and slightly grilled so that they are colored all over by the fire. Then take eggs beaten together with plenty of sugar and a little rose water; and put the slices of bread in this to soak; carefully remove them, and fry them a little in a frying pan with a little butter and lard, turning them very frequently so that they do not burn. The arrange them on a plate, and top with a little rose water colored yellow with a little saffron, and with plenty of sugar.”
–The Medieval Kitchen, Recipes from France and Italy,
The Oxford English Dictionary cites 1660 as the year “French toast” first made an appearance, in a book called The Accomplisht Cook. That preparation, however, left out the eggs, in favor of soaking pre-toasted bread in a solution of wine, sugar, and orange juice. The Dictionary of American Food and Drink contends that the first egg-based recipe in print didn’t appear until 1870; throughout the tail end of the 19th Century, similar recipes appeared under the monikers “French toast,” “Egg toast,” “Spanish toast,” and even “German toast.”
A highly dubious creation myth holds that French toast owes its creation to an Albany, N.Y., innkeeper named Joseph French. Legend has it that French whipped up a batch of the golden-brown treats in 1724 and advertised them as “French toast” because he’d never learned to use an apostrophe “s.”
In other words, a lot of speculation. But no one really knows.
Now, on to the recipe.
A few notes:
1. Use any type of bread you like. When I was growing up, my mom used good old sliced white bread. And it was delicious. Now, I use my personal favorite, challah (Jewish Egg Bread). Buttermilk, sourdough, brioche, and country-style are all excellent choices.
2. Day-old bread is best. If your bread is too fresh, it will fall apart when you soak it in the custard mixture. If it is too dry, you’ll never be able to get the bread soaked through enough to have a moist slice of finished toast.
3. Whole milk. Please. Cream and Half & Half are too heavy. 2%, 1%, and Skim don’t have the richness or flavor you want. Plus, they won’t stand up to the heat.
4. If you like, you can add about 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and/or nutmeg to the custard mixture. I generally don’t, but, if you want to, go for it.
5. I like to use my electric skillet to make French Toast. The temperature is steady and easy to adjust as I need to. If you prefer to use a skillet on the stove, keep the temperature at medium-low. Yes, it takes a little extra time. The results are worth it.
1 loaf day-old bread, sliced into 3/4″ – 1″ thick slices
6 eggs, well beaten
2 c. whole milk
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
Butter, syrup, powdered sugar, whipped cream, fruit for serving (one, some, or all of these; up to you)
1. Buy your bread a day or two before you decide to make the toast. A few hours up to the night before, slice the bread into thick slices and lay out on racks. This will let the bread dry out without over-drying. (If you slice the bread the night before and are afraid it might get too dry, cover the bread with a clean dish towel. This will still allow for air circulation but keep the bread from over-drying.)
In a pinch, you can have your oven on low and place the sliced bread in there for an hour to quick-dry the bread as well.
2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs. The need to be beaten well so that the whites, which can be notoriously hard to break down, are completely incorporated with the yolks.
3. Mix in the milk, sugar, and vanilla.
4. Meanwhile, have either an electric skillet preheated to 275F or a non-stick skillet on the stove over medium-low heat. (f you want to use a little unflavored oil or butter in the skillet, go ahead. I generally don’t.)
5. Take the bread, a slice or two at a time, and soak the bread. Gently press on the bread to make sure the custard mixture is soaking completely through the slice.
Flip the bread over and soak the other side.
Carefully lift the bread out, allowing the excess custard to drip back into the bowl. Lay the bread on a plate and repeat until you have enough to put into the skillet without crowding.
6. Transfer the bread to the skillet and let it cook until it is golden brown on one side before flipping. This will help keep the bread from falling apart and cook evenly.
Once the bread is browned, carefully flip it over. Continue to cook the bread until it is golden brown on the other side as well. It should also “puff” a bit in the center and, when you press it, it should bounce back, like a cake.
7. Keep the toast in a warm oven while you finish cooking the rest. Serve with any toppings you like and any sides you prefer.