There is no question that I am a huge French toast fan and have been since back in the day. However, I did not grow up in a home where much energy or time was put into breakfast-making. In fact, we ate boxed cereal and my brother and I could not have been more on board – though we were not permitted “sugar” cereals, and from that injustice I am still reeling. But on the rare occasion we were served something special, it was always French toast (never pancakes, FYI). My dad would take slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread, dip them in a simple mixture of eggs, milk and a bit of sugar, and then place the egg-drenched slices in a frying pan of melted margarine. He served them up with more margarine and Log Cabin “maple” syrup and we were basically in heaven – and to this day, I still love Log Cabin, though I don’t often advertise the fact.
Today I make French toast a tad differently than my dad. I start with an enriched, eggy, loaf of Challah or Brioche (I see no reason to make my own for this application, as even the chain store supermarkets sell plenty of delicious loaves – and the beauty of French toast, is that if your bread is a tad stale, etc., all the better).
I slice it up thickly, layer it decoratively in a large baking dish, and pour an amped-up custard of sorts over it all. I add yolks to my dad’s simple egg, sugar and milk mixture and I substitute heavy cream for some of the milk. I also add a bit of cinnamon, some salt and a generous glug of vanilla, just to liven things up a tad. I then wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap and place it in the fridge overnight. The bread soaks up the custard, and in the morning, I sprinkle the slices with Turbinado sugar and bake it off for the folks with whom I live (husband, a couple of boys) – and they could not be happier.
Old is new
Recently, however, I have upped my French toast game even more. I am still all about the overnight, baked version – so much more efficient and tasty than preparing it slice, by individual slice – but due to an old recipe I was “gifted” by a lovely woman from Milwaukee (who seems to have made sharing her family’s amazing comfort food recipes with me her full time job) I have incorporated a fab new step to the French toast making process: I now spread cream cheese and jam on the slices of bread before layering them in the baking vessel and pouring over the custard. To say this makes for the most luxurious and delicious of French toasts, hardly does the dish justice.
The cream cheese basically melts and is absorbed by the bread lending it an otherworldly creaminess. The tang of the cream cheese remains, but hardly, just enough so you know you are experiencing something truly special – and the fruitiness of the jam is perfect for cutting the richness of the toast, rendering maple syrup (Log Cabin, or otherwise) unnecessary.
I am fairly certain that my love of baked French toast stems from my love of bread pudding, but with the addition of cream cheese and jam, this one might just be better than them all.
1 lb. to 1 1/4 lb. Challah (or Brioche)
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
8 ozs cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup jam of your choosing
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling
Slice the bread into about 14 to 16 one-inch slices. Spread cream cheese on half of the slices and spread with jam. Top with the other half of the slices and cut in half. Arrange attractively in your prepared pan, stacking the “sandwiches” in two long rows like dominos (beginning and ending at the short sides of the pan).
Combine the eggs, yolks, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and whisk. Add the sugar and cinnamon and whisk again. Add the milk and cream and whisk a final time. Pour the custard over the bread, pressing the bread down with your fingers, if necessary, to make sure all the pieces are submerged. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.
In the morning, preheat the oven to 350°F. Sprinkle the Turbinado sugar generously over the French toast (this adds a bit of sparkle and a delightful crunch) and bake for 60 minutes, checking after 50. The bread should be golden brown and the custard fully absorbed and “cooked.” I like to stick a small paring knife into the center of the toast and when the blade comes out more cake-y, than wet, the French toast is done.
If it’s breakfast time, serve immediately with confectioner’s sugar lightly dusted on top. And if it’s not, then, with vanilla ice cream and/or lightly sweetened whipped cream. •
Celebrate National Have A Brownie Day with Jessie on 2/29 at 11 am at Noble Horizons in Salisbury, CT. Jessie will be doing a live demonstration, talking about her recipes and books, and you’ll even get to have some brownies! To sign up go to www.noblehorizons.org. We hope to see you there!
Jessie is a baker and cookbook author; you can learn more about her through her website jessiesheehanbakes.com.