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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pain Perdu au Four

For you anglophones, that's Baked French Toast.


I think everybody loves french toast.  And I'm pretty sure everybody knows how to cook it too.  I mean, it's not hard to pull off.  Although I will stipulate that it can take practice and experience to master it.  I won't say that I have mastered it.  Yet. :)  But I'm certainly no amateur. Amateur french toast is dry and rubbery, and is usually forgiven (in most cases) with copious amounts of butter, fruit, or syrup... or even all three.

Great french toast, on the other hand, is good enough on its own.  Anything you would choose to garnish or top it with, is just for added or juxtaposed flavour complexity.

There are a few tricks I've learned to make a somewhat decent french toast.  One is to only lightly beat your egg mixture.  Another is to add a fair bit of moisture in the form of milk, cream, or almond milk.  Of course, if you're trying to impress someone, and this is a once-in-a-while kind of thing, pull out all the stops and use a heavy cream in your mix.  Nothing will compare.

Of course, choosing the right kind of bread helps too.  In our household, we typically don't buy the right kind of bread for this sort of thing very often.  We tend to buy things like sprouted grain and flax breads.  Healthy breads.  <sigh>.  Needless to say, those don't work very well with french toast batter.  Or anything delicious really.  I mean don't get me wrong, for everyday purposes, I quite enjoy my thin little grain bread, but you'll have the best successes with a more traditional loaf.  I'm going to suggest a nice French or Italian loaf (white bread), even a fresh baguette is fine; just make sure that your slices are thick.

Other than that, the other techniques simply require practice:
  • getting the right mixture of egg to other components.  Usually wetter is better.  I often go heavy on the egg, because I like the extra bits of fluffy, browned, egg bits on the sides of the toast. Feel free to add some of your flavour here too, but avoid the dry ingredients.  So, some vanilla or hazelnut extract is great.  And sugar too; a tablespoon of brown sugar dissolved evenly in there is quite lovely.  Just save the cinnamon, nutmeg, or other dry ingredients to dust on after the toast has been cooked.
  • feel free to experiment with things here for something different, or more savoury.  Some things like diced chillies, or even finely minced scallions, can be extraordinary in french toast. See one of my first posts, about spicy eggy crumpets.
  • making sure you soak the bread evenly, and for the perfect amount of time (when the mix has completely saturated the bread to the middle, but before it starts to disintegrate... this is why thicker slices often work best).
  • using a pre-heated skillet, pan, or (in today's case) baking sheet, that is the perfect temperature.  Definitely on the hot side, but not too hot.  I'd say medium to moderately hot.  :)

As to the cooking itself, what I do is keep a small ramekin of vegetable oil right by the stove, and using a silicon brush, lightly coat the pan or skillet right before placing the bread.  Often I'll pour a tiny bit of batter down before placing the bread on top of it.  Just to get a little extra of the aforementioned eggy bits on the sides.

I give it a flip after only a minute or two, and then dust the freshly-cooked side with a bit of cinnamon or nutmeg or cayenne or something.  After that, and especially if you're making a large batch of them, carefully take them from the pan and place them in the warming oven (low, low heat).

Today's french toast is baked though.  It was really cold today and I wanted an excuse to turn on the oven.

Now, really, what you're supposed to do with 'baked french toast' is to make it sort of like bread-pudding style.  Sort of.  Not chopped up and stuff, but all-contained together, the bread spread out in a casserole dish and the batter just poured on overtop.

Now - you might know by now - one of my favourite things to do in the kitchen is to stubbornly refuse common practices.  I felt that there should be a way to bake french toast, AND still get the nice, browned sides and eggy extra bits and such. To cook them all up at once and not sit there for a half an hour frying them in batches.  To get the 'best of all worlds' is something I regularly aim to in cooking.  :)

I love bread pudding as much as the next person, but I like the singular neatness of conventional french toast.

Anyway, so I gave it a try.  I was wary (and rightly so) about drying them out, and so I was extra generous with the batter before baking, and a little extra with the oil brushing as well.

And then I added a small dollop of becel on top afterwards to help.

The end result was that they were a little drier than usual, but still very good.  The convenience factor alone was nice - it was really quick and easy to just get them all done in one batch like this.

Anyway, these were still nice and moist in the middle, yet crispy and golden on the outside, which is arguably the most important thing.

They looked gorgeous, but they tasted even better!

Personally I love fruit compotes and the like, but if you want to use confectioner's sugar or maple syrup, I'm not stopping you.